UNLV shocks No. 8 Creighton at Jack Jones Classic in the wake of tragedy

Kalin Sipes-The Sporting Tribune
UNLV pulls off an improbable win over eighth-ranked Creighton just hours after the victims of last week's shooting were honored in an on-campus vigil.

HENDERSON, Nev.— Exactly one week after a gunman tore through the UNLV community, the Runnin’ Rebels provided their faithful with a much needed evening of solace and inspiration, shocking the eighth-ranked Creighton Blue Jays in an improbable near wire-to-wire win at The Dollar Loan Center.

It was already a brutally emotional day on campus, as hundreds of mourners gathered this afternoon to pay tribute to the professors who were slain in the shooting. In all honesty, the thought of tonight’s game wasn’t really present in my head until I was getting ready to head over to the arena. Sports have been secondary. I know this is a sentiment shared by the UNLV community at large. 

At the same time as the vigil, a starkly different scene was unfolding across campus. The athletic department had just received word that a surprise court ruling in West Virginia would allow highly-touted transfer Keylan Boone to make his long awaited debut with the team. Boone said in his post-game media availability that he was given word he was good to go at around 2:10 p.m., after the pre-game meal.

Even with Keylan Boone’s sudden availability, UNLV still entered Wednesday’s games as 14-point underdogs in the midst of one of the lowest stretches in the history of the program. I was expecting Creighton to cover the large number with ease, given their ability to drain the three and UNLV’s inability to cover it. 

Instead, the Runnin’ Rebels notched a defensive effort that suddenly brought to life all of the possibilities the fan base had dreamed up in the off-season. From the first minute through the 40th, they played with a level of urgency I wasn’t sure a Kevin Kruger led team was capable of. They played with a fire that showed how badly they wanted this moment for the community. Especially after losing a heartbreaker to Loyola-Marymount over the weekend in their first opportunity to get back on the court after the tragedy. 

“They are one of the best, if not the best, offensive team that we will play, not only this year but maybe in our guys’ careers,” Coach Kevin Kruger said following the game. “Our team knew that the effort had to be at the level it was at to give ourselves a chance to win the game, and without a doubt, it was there.”

The fire certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the crowd. I remarked on Twitter in the first half that the “Rebels” chants were louder than they’ve been in my entire time at the university. When the outcome became apparent in the second half, the chants dwarfed what was heard in the first half. It was a cathartic release. 

The environment, aided in large part by the tighter dimensions of The Dollar Loan Center, made the typical Thomas and Mack game feel like a knitting convention. It was such a drastic improvement in atmosphere that the athletic department may need to ask themselves if an arena downsizing could be in order for the school in the future. At the very least, the DLC earned itself some more Runnin’ Rebel home games in the future. 

Kalib Boone celebrates a made basket. Kalin Sipes, The Sporting Tribune.

UNLV was led by an excellent 25-point outing from Kalib Boone and a performance from point guard DJ Thomas that was poised beyond his years. Kalib seemed to unlock another level to his game with his brother back on the floor and UNLV looked like a completely different team because of it. 

Kalib Boone told reporters following the game, “Me and my brother know what we’re going to do. I knew if he (Keylan) looks away from me, he’s going to come back and throw the ball to me, so I post up a little longer than I should. I know when he’s going to cut and where he’s going to be at. It’s a great feeling.”

UNLV has another opportunity for a meaningful win this weekend, as they had to Phoenix to play St. Mary’s at the Jerry Colangelo Classic. St. Mary’s had a slow start to the season, but rebounded to knock off pre-season Mountain West favorite No. 18 Colorado State this past weekend.