Apparently the No. 21 has a thing for the Rebels.
On Saturday, UNLV beat No. 21 New Mexico 84-77 to a packed house at The Pit in Albuquerque. In November, the Rebels knocked out another No. 21 team – Dayton – at the Thomas & Mack Center.
But most importantly, UNLV won its first Mountain West game of the season on Saturday, avoiding a 3-0 start in conference play.
“These games are fun,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger told reporters after the game. “Especially if you can assert yourself.”
The win marked a return to many of the keys to the Rebels’ early success this season. Sophomore Keshon Gilbert bounced off a rough start to score 14 points, fifth-year guard EJ Harkless held his ground in the second half and scored the best 25 points of the game, and role-players Jordan McCabe and David Muoka came in great moments.
Here are three takeaways from the win:
Kruger considers Muoka “the epitome of a great teammate”. The senior center does a lot of the dirty work, rebounding, protecting the rim, and never caring about his points at the end of the night.
Muoka was particularly valuable for the Rebels (12-3, 1-2 Mountain West) in the stretch against the Lobos (14-2, 2-2). His UNLV forward Victor Iwuakor, whom Kruger has trusted for most of the season, struggled with New Mexico forward Morris Udeze and was eliminated from the game with three minutes remaining.
But Muoka proved to be a better matchup. The senior center finished the game with seven rebounds, two blocks and zero turnovers, along with 11 points. His size advantage over Udeze (6ft 10in vs. 6-8) allowed him to fire hook shots from close to the restricted area, and Muoka was an efficient 4-on-6 from the field.
“He never asks for the ball,” Kruger said. “So tonight for him to demand it, make games, yell at our bench to try and get everyone going – it just gives us an extra weapon when he’s playing like that.”
Defense in the second half
UNLV’s defense also seemed almost optimal, especially in the second half. The Rebels kept the Lobos off the field on just 34.3 percent shots after the break (2-for-11 on 3 points). UNLV also forced 16 turnovers which it converted to 21 points.
The Lobos’ talented backcourt tandem, consisting of senior Jaelen House and junior Jamal Mashburn Jr., combined for 31 points, but both played limited minutes due to foul problems. House was particularly ineffective in the second half, remaining scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting.
The senior set UNLV on fire with 27 points in the penultimate game of the regular season last season, and Kruger praised his team’s commitment to aggressive switching on defense.
“I just thought the guys did a really good job making the looks tough and holding their hands up,” Kruger said.
Harkless takes over
The final piece to the Rebels’ disgruntled victory came from their offensive efficiency. In contrast to UNLV’s performance in a 76-67 loss to San Diego State on December 31, Kruger’s side shot 55.6 percent from the field in the second half against New Mexico. Most of those shots came from Harkless, who was 7 of 11 from the field.
His biggest shot came with 40 seconds to go when he converted a sloppy Rebels possession into points by nailing a float off the right elbow near the free-throw line to keep it a two-point game.
“I collected it, did my stride that we work on every day and took a difficult shot,” Harkless said.