LAS VEGAS — There were the 10 straight wins to start the season. Then there was the 1-6 start in conference play.
Now, there’s a modest two-game winning streak and a rededication to playing sound defense while looking to play faster on offense.
Who knows where this roller-coaster ride will all lead to? But perhaps, just maybe, UNLV’s basketball team has found its footing and is finally ready to be a factor in the Mountain West race.
The first half of league play ended Saturday with an impressive 68-62 win over in-state rival Nevada in front of a season-high crowd of 8,734 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Couple that with a sold-out crowd at Cox Pavilion which saw the first-place women’s team defeat the Wolf Pack 80-57 earlier Saturday to go to 20-2 for the season, and it was a pretty good day to be a Rebel.
Kevin Kruger’s Runnin’ Rebels provided enough excitement along with a healthy dose of drama in getting the job done. They’re still not 100 percent healthy as guard Luis Rodriguez missed his second straight game with a leg injury and Isaiah Cottrell remains out with a foot ailment, having played just one game this season. But as Elijah Parquet gets comfortable again on the floor after missing eight games with a knee injury and Shane Nowell is working his way into the regular rotation, there are positive signs for the program going forward.
Winning against a quality team and doing it in the fashion they did it — forcing 19 turnovers, holding star center Will Baker to just two points and closing out the game with EJ Harkless taking things over offensively left the Rebels with nothing but positive vibes, the poor free-throw shooting notwithstanding (UNLV was just 17 of 29 from the stripe).
“It’s good to sit here and feel like this again,” Kruger said. “We stuck our chests out a little bit and had that pride and swagger that good things are going to happen. You go out and play as hard as you can, and I thought the guys did that.”
Harkless, who finished with a double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds and scored eight of UNLV’s last 10 points, said: “They’ve been a hot team. But we had a good game against Wyoming and we had a good game (Saturday).”
The tweaks Kruger and his staff have recently made to help turn things around appear to be working. They’re not switching every ball screen and aren’t getting beaten off the dribble as much. They’re getting better on-the-ball defense with Parquet on the floor, thus fewer breakdowns are occurring. On offense, UNLV is playing at a higher tempo, looking to get better percentage shots or at least more open looks.
“When we struggled there for a couple weeks in, we didn’t necessarily have bad offensive nights,” Kruger said. “Where our confidence really took a hit was at the defensive end. But when you have that confidence and swagger, you can build off that.”
Justin Webster, who had a season-high 17 points and kept his team in it when things were not so great in the first half, said this is a good way to play.
“I think we’re comfortable playing fast,” he said. “I was getting some good looks and I was able to knock down my shots.”
Though the box score indicated nine players saw action Saturday, Kruger essentially played seven players. The rotation probably goes to eight when Rodriguez returns. Granted, it’s not the “Hardway Eight” of Jerry Tarkanian’s first Final Four team in 1977 but for now, it will suffice for Kruger.
“We have a couple of guys out but fatigue is not an issue at this point,” Harkless said.
Oh really? We’ll see Tuesday when the Rebels (3-6 MW, 14-7 overall) play in the altitude of Fort Collins against Colorado State, seeking revenge for the 82-81 overtime loss to the Rams on Jan. 14. It’s the start of the second half of Mountain West play and it’ll be a test of whether or not UNLV has truly turned the corner.
One piece of advice — make sure someone guards Isaiah Stevens this time around after he single-handedly led CSU’s win with 33 points and eight made 3-pointers, including a half-court heave at the buzzer in regulation to force OT in the first meeting Jan. 14. But I’m guessing Kruger has that covered.