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UNLV trying to find winning formula to snap losing skid

UNLV coach Kevin Kruger is looking for an edge.

The Rebels are slumping. They only have one win in the Mountain West and are 2-6 in their past eight games.

Kruger’s search for a spark led to a rotation change Tuesday at Utah State. He promoted senior forward Victor Iwuakor into the starting lineup, moved senior center David Muoka to the bench and gave significant minutes to freshman Keyshawn Hall, who scored a team-best 19 points.

The Rebels lost 75-71.

“It’s got to bother us a lot that teams think they can beat us,” Kruger said. “Whether or not we do win or lose at the end of the day doesn’t really matter. We’ve got to go in with that edge and that chip like we did in November, when nobody thought anything of us and nobody expected us to win any games.”

UNLV (12-6, 1-5 Mountain West) is back on the road at 3 p.m. Saturday, when it takes on Fresno State (6-11, 2-4) at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California. The Rebels are in desperate need of a win amid a three-game losing streak, their longest of the season.

“We’re not in the spot we want to be right now,” Iwuakor said. “We’re trying to get it back together and try again.”

Kruger’s rotation experimentation did reveal some potential. Hall, playing his first significant minutes, was an impactful scorer off the bench. He created space in the low post, went 6 of 11 from the field and made all six of his free throws.

Hall only found out he was in line for some major minutes just before the flight to Logan, Utah, but said he’s been staying on top of his conditioning to be ready for any opportunity. Kruger confirmed Hall will get another chance against the Bulldogs.

The Cleveland native’s offensive abilities have always been apparent, as Hall scored in four of his first five appearances for UNLV. However, the Rebels need him to be solid on defense, too.

Kruger expects every player who touches the floor for UNLV to be completely locked into the Rebels’ defensive scheme. He doesn’t want other players to feel forced to cover for Hall defensively when he’s on the court, and Hall has been working on his rotations, closeouts and communication this week.

Kruger said Hall will continue to grow defensively as he gets more repetitions. His defensive inexperience was on display at times against Utah State, particularly when he got switched onto a guard. For example, Hall lost Aggies sharpshooter Steven Ashworth for the go-ahead 3 with 1:09 remaining.

“I can’t have cement feet, like my feet in the ground,” Hall said. “Just got to play more agile on defense.”

On the opposite end of the experience spectrum, fifth-year wing Elijah Parquet returned to practice this week. The former Colorado wing hasn’t played since Dec. 10, when he injured his knee against Washington State. Kruger said Parquet can help restore some of the continuity and fluidity, especially on defense, that fueled UNLV’s 10-0 start to the season.

Getting Parquet back or giving Hall more minutes won’t solve all of the Rebels’ problems. Kruger said it’s easy to look back and wonder what could have gone differently. For now, however, UNLV has to push forward and get back in the win column.

“We’ve got to keep working,” Kruger said. “We’ve got to have a good approach. We’ve got to have a good mindset.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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