Maybe the revolving door at the coach’s office will stop spinning.
T.J. Otzelberger, UNLV’s fifth head men’s basketball coach this decade, won his debut Tuesday as the Runnin’ Rebels stomped Purdue Fort Wayne, 86-71, in front of an announced crowd of 7,728 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
And while the performance was far from perfect and the competition wasn’t the highest caliber, there were enough encouraging signs for those that were in attendance to think about returning Saturday when UNLV steps up in class and hosts Kansas State at 1 p.m.
There was unselfish play. There weren’t as many offensive lulls as in previous years. The Rebels had a 43-19 rebounding edge, but that may have been more to the fact the Mastodons had only two players taller than 6-foot-7.
“I was pleased with our group and the way they came out for this game,” Otzelberger said. “I think our group showed in the first half what we can be defensively.”
A 25-6 run to close out the first half had UNLV comfortably ahead, 39-23. Junior Jonah Antonio, UNLV’s 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Australia who has an exceptionally quick release on his shot, made five 3-pointers and would finish with 17 points in his Rebels debut.
The Mastodons got within nine midway through the second half but UNLV quickly kicked it back up to 18 and would lead by as many as 21 in the latter stages.
There were 14 turnovers by the Rebels and a few bricks tossed up that Otzelberger will not be pleased with. But the Rebels shot 52 percent from the floor, were 7 of 19 from the 3-point arc and even hit 82 percent of their free throws.
“I’m sure we’ll address it,” Antonio said of the sloppy spells the team went through. “It was the first game and all (Otzelberger) wants is for us to play hard and give maximum effort.”
UNLV had five players score in double figures, including Cheikh Mbacke Diong, who had 17 points as well along with 17 rebounds to share team-high honors with Antonio. Purdue Fort Wayne’s Jarred Godfrey led all scorers with 24 points.
That kind of offensive balance will help the Rebels compete most nights.
“I’ll put our starting five against anyone’s in the country,” Antonio said. “I believe in my guys.”
Otzelberger said it felt great to get his first win as UNLV’s coach.
“I thought we locked in defensively that last seven minutes of the first half,” he said. “We’ve got to continue that energy in the second half.
“It’s about us continuing to improve and getting better every day. But it was a thrill to get this first win.”