It appears T.J. Otzelberger’s players finally got the message.
After some uninspiring performances in late November and early December and the first-year UNLV coach publicly calling out his guys for a lack of effort, the Rebels have responded the way Otzelberger had hoped.
Saturday, they weathered an early deficit against Air Force and wound up mopping the Thomas & Mack Center floor with the Falcons, 71-59. The easy win kept the Rebels undefeated in Mountain West play at 3-0 and they got back to .500 overall at 8-8.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Otzelberger said. “Air Force is a potent offensive team. But our guys were dialed in at the defensive end of the floor and our team is growing in front of our eyes. We’re playing harder and we’re playing for each other.”
Honestly, there’s been little joy inside the Thomas & Mack for a while now and the intense Otzelberger’s frustration has been clearly evident. But his players are playing a lot harder, a little smarter and they’re winning as a result. The announced crowd of 7,633 certainly appreciated it.
“I think we’re locking in on the details,” said Marvin Coleman, who started in place of Donnie Hillman, who did not dress after being late for the morning shootaround. “We’re playing together and the coaches are coming up with a great defensive game plan.
After Wednesday’s resounding 70-53 win over Utah State, the possibility of a letdown was certainly in play. And when Air Force sprinted out to a 14-5 lead five minutes in and held a 20-10 advantage midway through the first half, it sure looked like there were going to be excuses aplenty come postgame.
Instead, the shots started dropping for UNLV, the Falcons started getting careless with the ball and went into an offensive funk, going scoreless over an eight-minute span. The deficit was wiped out and the Rebels use a 17-0 run to take command at 27-20.
A variety of presses helped change the momentum and it speaks to what Coleman alluded to about having a sound game plan. The Falcons never scored off their vaunted back-door cuts and that’s due to UNLV staying structurally sound defensively.
“We’re just working harder defensively,” said guard Amauri Hardy, who led all scorers with 21 points. “We’ve stayed together and we’re looking for each other.”
Normally, Dave Pilipovich’s teams play smart and use their collective high basketball I.Q. to their advantage. Not Saturday. Air Force turned it over 17 times, shot just 34 percent from the floor and 68 percent from the foul line and as a result, fell to 7-8 overall, 1-2 in the Mountain West.
Give UNLV credit for forcing the Falcons into some of those miscues. The defensive intensity has ratcheted up the last couple of weeks since Otzelberger called out his players publicly following the Dec. 18 loss at home to Pacific.
I think it was a turning point,” Coleman said. “It was, ‘Yo, we have to pick it up how we play.’ That’s doing it for us.”
Coleman is leading by example and Otzelberger’s taking notice of the contributions from the 6-foot-2 sophomore guard.
“Marvin Coleman is the head of the snake,” Otzelberger said. “He really wants to win. He got 10 rebounds and had six assists. As a coach, you love seeing that kind of effort.”
The Rebels will take their four-game winning streak and unbeaten MW record to Boise State Wednesday and then go to Laramie Saturday to face Wyoming. It’s an opportunity to keep the positive momentum going and a chance to show they can be a factor in the conference race which has 13th-ranked San Diego State at the top at 4-0 after the Aztecs won at Utah State Saturday.
“We’ve won on the road and we’re rolling, but we’re just starting to scratch the surface,” Coleman said. “We’re trying to get better every day.”