Having struggled in its last two games, UNLV’s basketball team needed something good to happen to it. But given the way this season has been going nationally, nothing is guaranteed.
As the Rebels were putting the finishing touches on an 80-57 win over Jackson State Tuesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, Duke, the No. 1 team in the nation, was being defeated at home, 85-83 in overtime, by Stephen F. Austin on a buzzer-beater layup.
Which goes to show you that even the best teams are susceptible to stumbling and falling. Especially when the analytics and everything else says otherwise.
The Rebels had committed 21 turnovers. They were in a three-point game midway through the second half. And given their recent inability to close teams out, nothing was guaranteed, even against a team that was 1-5 coming in and lacking size and talent everywhere on the court.
But to their credit, they were able to execute smarter down the stretch, pull away from the Tigers and snap their two-game home losing streak and finish the four-game homestand 2-2.
“We’ve got to get some stops,” UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said of his team, which improved to 3-5 with Tuesday’s win. “We have to take care of the ball. We have to get more consistent.
“When we do things the right way, when we defend and value the basketball, we’re a pretty good team. But we have to do it all the time, not just for short stretches of games.”
As usual, Amauri Hardy, was showing the way for UNLV. Hardy led the Rebels with 20 points, 11 of them in the first half. Cheikh Mbacke Diong also had a string game, finishing with a double-double of 19 points and 13 rebounds in just under 32 minutes.
But it was the final 20 minutes that told the story. UNLV shot 61 percent from the floor in the second half and even though the Tigers hung around for a while, the Rebels eventually put it away with a 30-7 run over the final 10 1/2 minutes. They shared the ball as evidenced by the 21 assists and they converted more often than not.
“Our energy level picked up,” Otzelberger said of the second-half surge. “Bryce (Hamilton) Nick Blair had some good stretches.”
Blair, who had 12 points in just under 17 minutes off the bench, said it was a matter of everyone picking up the defensive intensity.
“Once we get stops the offense comes naturally,” Blair said. “Defense comes first.”
Otzelberger said the team’s success on its upcoming three-game road trip that begins Saturday at Cincinnati will depend on how hard they play.
“We can’t be a cool team,” he said. “We have to be a team that values every possession. We made a decision we are going to play harder and find a way to win the game (tonight).”