Coming off a 17-point victory over Mountain West preseason favorite Utah State, one big question was whether UNLV would come out with the same intensity Saturday night against Air Force.
The Falcons were the ones hot early, making their first five 3-pointers in taking an 11-point lead.
But the Rebels showed their resilience by responding with a 17-point run — Air Force went 7:34 without scoring — to win 71-59 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Rebels (8-8, 3-0 Mountain West) extended their winning streak to four games and reached .500 for the first time since opening the season 1-1.
“Our team is growing in front of our eyes and taking care of the ball a little bit better,” UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We’re guarding, and we’re doing a great job playing for each other.”
Amauri Hardy led UNLV with 21 points, Bryce Hamilton scored 15 and Mbacke Diong totaled 12 points and eight rebounds. Marvin Coleman finished with six points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Donnie Tillman did not play because he was late for Saturday’s shootaround, Otzelberger said.
Lavelle Scottie led Air Force (7-8, 1-2) with 19 points, and Ryan Swan scored 18.
Here are three takeaways from the victory:
1. Strong defense becoming theme
Otzelberger said in the preseason he knew success would come mostly on the defensive end, and that’s proving correct.
The Rebels shut down Utah State on Wednesday, limiting the Aggies to 32.7 percent shooting in a 70-53 victory. And then they limited Air Force to 34.6 percent shooting, holding the Falcons 19 points below their average.
“We hang our hats on defense,” Hardy said. “I feel like when our defense is going (well), our offense is going a lot easier.”
Air Force rolled early in taking leads of 19-8 and 20-10 before UNLV turned up the defensive intensity by going to the press.
“It really disrupted their rhythm, and it made us the aggressor,” Otzelberger said.
2. Where is Tillman’s head?
Otzelberger hasn’t had to talk about the need for more effort during this winning streak, and the Rebels are playing with a cohesiveness that was missing a few weeks ago.
Tillman has been a repeat offender, and he became the first player to be penalized by more than missing a start. He didn’t start four other games, though not all those were discipline-related.
The conventional wisdom is Tillman has an eye on the NBA, especially given he initially filed for the draft last year while at Utah. It’s unlikely he would choose to come back to school for a third time.
If Tillman’s focus isn’t completely on this season for UNLV, Otzelberger might have decisions to make about him.
3. UNLV takes its act on road
UNLV plays twice this week away from the Thomas & Mack — at Boise State on Wednesday and at Wyoming on Saturday. The Rebels are 1-3 on the road, but the victory was in conference play at Fresno State.
“It’s tough to win on the road, but I feel like we’re battle-tested,” Coleman said. “We had a lot of close games we lost in overtime, and I feel like that is going to put us over the hump in those type of games.”
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