UNLV advances in NIT with 84-77 win at Princeton

Thomas P. Costello-USA TODAY
UNLV won their first postseason contest in 16 years, defeating Ivy League and past March foe Princeton 84-77 at the Jadwin Gymnasium.

UNLV earned their first NIT win since 2005 and their first postseason win of any kind since 2008, beating Princeton 84-77 with a strong second half from the field despite being shorthanded and in an unfamiliar road environment.

“(I) couldn’t be happier for them and prouder of them for the fight in the second half, especially,” Kevin Kruger said after the game. “First half, I thought we did a lot of really good things and went on some really good runs, but Princeton went on some better runs. We found ourselves in a hole and I felt like we were just a half-step slow.”

UNLV was without starters Luis Rodriguez and Kalib Boone for the contest. Rodriguez was ruled out due to what is being referred to as a family matter. Boone is still nursing the ankle injury that kept him out of last week’s Mountain West quarterfinal loss to San Diego State. In their absence, Justin Webster and Shane Nowell were inserted into the starting lineup. 

The first half was frenetic, and it’s a pace that Kevin Kruger and the Runnin’ Rebels have not oft had to match throughout the season. It was a relatively even battle into the break, all things considered. Princeton did seem to have the advantage at times in the first half, whether that was due to the familiarity with their environment or the additional rest saved from not having to travel across the country. Probably both. Regardless, the Tigers brought a 38-36 lead into halftime at the Jadwin Gymnasium.

Keylan Boone led the Runnin’ Rebels with nine points at halftime, while Rob Whaley tallied six points and five rebounds on a perfect 3-3 shooting from the field. Freshman star DJ Thomas paced the offense in the first half as he usually does, but it didn’t have much effect on the halftime stat sheet. The 18-year-old wunderkind had just five points and an assist at the break. 

Two runs in the second half ended up being the difference for the Runnin’ Rebels in this one. UNLV started the second half on 22-8 run and managed a 55-46 lead with 13 minutes in the second half. After Princeton brought the game to within four at 57-53 with 10:34 remaining, UNLV went on a subsequent 13-2 run to stretch their lead to 70-55 with just over five minutes remaining.

“The guys came out in the second half and had the start that we had to have,” Kruger said. “What ended up being the difference in the game was being aggressive and assertive there, and getting looks that we wanted.”

You think that would be enough to get them out of dodge without a late sweat, didn’t you? Come on. You just knew they were going to panic themselves into making it closer than it needed to be.

Princeton got the game to within as thin a margin as four points in the waning moments of the game. Fortunately, there wouldn’t be a Utah State or Reno-esque collapse to end the Runnin’ Rebels season. At least not for a few more days.

Rob Whaley completed his perfect day from the field in the second half, finishing with 21 points and nine rebounds on a perfect 8-8 shooting. Keylan Boone played one of his finest games of the season, scoring 18 points on 8-13 shooting from the field while also cleaning up quite a few of the rebounds that would have been scooped by his brother Kalib had he been playing.

Caden Pierce led all scorers with 22 points on 10-16 shooting in the loss.

UNLV will host Boston college in the second round of the NIT at the Thomas & Mack Center on Sunday. Tip-off is slated for 6:30 p.m. local time and tickets have been made available on the school’s ticketing website.