Rebels’ identity forged in signature win

A second-half shutdown of No. 21 Dayton Tuesday led to a 60-52 win for UNLV which improved to 3-0.


LAS VEGAS — When UNLV’s men’s basketball nonconference schedule was announced, it was widely mocked for its lack of quality.

Life Pacific? Really?

But no one quibbled when they saw Dayton on the slate. The Flyers were preseason top-25 and had a KenPom ranking of 24. They were as legit as it got.

So when Dayton, the nation’s 21st-ranked team, visited the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday night for a nationally televised game against the Runnin’ Rebels, many among the 5,732 who showed up figured it was going to be UNLV’s first loss and as long as Kevin Kruger’s team didn’t get blown out, they could live with it. 

And when the Flyers led 32-22 at halftime, thanks in part to someone named Kobe Elvis, and extended the lead to 12 early in the second half, well, let’s just say things looked rather ominous for the home team.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that first loss. The Rebels started defending. Dayton started to turn the ball over with alarming regularity. Elvis left the building after scoring 16 points and the rest of Dayton’s offense pulled a Siegfried and Roy, disappearing over the final 6:46 by failing to notch a single field goal.

Credit UNLV’s 60-52 win to a willingness to continue to work hard and defend, to having its best players step up when it counted most, to Kruger managing foul trouble of his top two guys and his team forcing 24 UD turnovers. It resulted in a signature win for the program and the first win at home over a non-conference ranked opponent in nearly eight years.

“I think we faced a double-digit deficit twice and both times we just came back swinging,” Kruger said. “But that’s what these guys have done and that’s what they do in practice every day; they just compete like crazy. It was great to see it pay off for them.”

Consider Dayton was bigger — the Flyers’ smallest starter was 6-foot-6 — and add in quickness to go with that size, it didn’t appear to be a good matchup. But the Rebels’ tenacity was evident and perhaps their identity of being a hard-working defensive group that never gives up is being crafted. Twice in the second half, UNLV helped keep possessions alive with not just one but two offensive rebounds and both times came away with points. EJ Harkless and Keshon Gilbert, UNLV’s top two offensive players, carried the day with 24 and 16 points respectively and David Muoka, the team’s 6-10 senior center from Hong Kong, had nine rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. That Dayton only held a slim overall edge on the glass (34-29) shows you how hard UNLV battled.

“We talked about adversity and how we would handle it,” Harkless said. “I thought we did a good job of adjusting and handling it well.”

The biggest adjustment may have been Kruger ceasing to run ball screens for his top guys and instead give them the freedom to create chances on their own. Dayton was virtually helpless as Harkless, Gilbert and Luis Rodriguez went to work in the second half, rallied their team and then closed it out despite some missed free throws down the stretch.

At 3-0, UNLV is setting itself up for a potentially strong preseason run before Mountain West play tips off Dec. 28 at San Jose State. The Rebels return to the court Friday against High Point and Kruger knows he has to guard against a letdown after Tuesday’s emotional win which saw he and his players celebrating wildly in their locker room. There’s a trip to Southern California next week and a likely encounter with Minnesota. There’s a trip to San Diego to face USD. There are games at neutral sites in Southern Nevada against Hawaii at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson and vs. Washington State at the MGM Grand Garden. 

The remaining non-conference games are at home against San Francisco and Southern Mississippi. It’s not inconceivable UNLV could run the table and be 12-0 by the time they travel to San Jose after Christmas. It’s probably unlikely it happens but the team’s start is encouraging and if it continues to turn teams over at the rate of nearly 26 a game, there’s going to be a lot of postgame celebrations in the Rebels’ locker room.


Prior to Tuesday’s game, a memorial service was held on the UNLV campus for another basketball coach.

Jim Bolla, who served as the Lady Rebels coach from 1982 to 1996 and remains the program’s winningest coach, died Oct. 21 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Bolla was 70 years old.

I covered Bolla’s Lady Rebels when I arrived in Las Vegas in 1988 to work at the Las Vegas Sun. We developed a friendship that lasted right up to the end of his life. He was knowledgable about all sports, not just basketball. He was having a successful run as a radio sports talk show host until his health rendered him unable to continue.

Several of his former UNLV players attended and spoke of the 6-foot-8 former coach who had played at the University of Pittsburgh and helped the Panthers reach the Elite Eight in 1974. They told funny stories and recalled those special moments which occur between coach and player that you never forget.

Bolla also worked in the school’s development wing and raised more than $50 million for the school. He loved UNLV and it was always a special place for him. He won 300 games with the Lady Rebels and took the program to the NCAA women’s tournament seven times. His teams won 20 or more games 11 times.

Late in his life, he would make the long drive from Las Vegas to UCLA Medical Center for treatment. He did it alone and without complaint. 

He fought a brave battle but in the end, he couldn’t stop cancer any more than he could North Carolina State’s 7-foot-2 center Tom Burleson in the 1974 NCAA Tournament.

Jim Bolla was quite a guy. His suffering is over. May he rest in peace and may his life be a blessing to those who knew him and loved him.

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