EJ Harkless makes layup in final seconds to fend off Falcons 54-53

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EJ Harkless (55), shoots the ball. Photo by Kalin Sipes.

Runnin’ Rebels defeat the Air Force Falcons 54-53 in a nail biter home game.

UNLV was down one with 10 seconds left, looking poised to suffer another heartbreaking defeat. As the Falcons inbounded the ball, Jackie Johnson III stole the pass, giving UNLV one last chance. When Keshon Gilbert missed a contested layup, Oklahoma transfer EJ Harkless grabbed the rebound and laid it in, giving UNLV the win.

“Put the ball in the hole man, just go get it,” Harkless said about his game-winner postgame. 

UNLV Head Coach Kevin Kruger’s comments regarding the play praised sophomore Johnson III, who made the crucial steal late.

“The only opportunity we had to have a chance to win the game was if someone got a deflection or a steal, and he [Johnson III] did that,” Kruger stated postgame. “Couldn’t be more proud of him, couldn’t be more happy for him.”

UNLV had been 0-4 up to this point in games separated by less than three points. Kruger noted the importance of this win in postgame talks.

“Felt lately like we’ve been on the wrong side of a couple of those. Experience is the best teacher in those opportunities,” Kruger said. 

Harkless led all players tonight with 23 points on 9-17 shooting from the field. Harkless also led the Runnin’ Rebels with seven rebounds. Nineteen of Harkless’ 23 came in the second half.

“I think his second half was a lot better than his first,” Kruger said postgame. “EJ is as competitive as anybody there is. He made some huge plays late.”

Harkless was the lone Runnin’ Rebel in double digits scoring. UNLV’s most impactful player however was Johnson III, who finished with a plus/minus of plus 14. 

“Jackie is somebody who’s got great quickness,” Kruger said. “He’s always in the gym working every day. I thought Jackie as much as anyone took to heart how we wanted to guard the Air Force.”

The Falcons were led by two 16-point outings from both Rytis Petraitis and Jake Heidbreder. Petraitis also finished with a game-high 10 rebounds.

The Runnin’ Rebels and Falcons traded baskets early on in this matchup. UNLV’s David Muoka scored until the Falcon’s Ethan Taylor hit a 3-pointer with 14:23 left in the first half. The Falcons maintained that lead for nine minutes.

Despite Jordan McCabe giving UNLV the lead with 2:41 left in the first half, the Runnin’ Rebels entered halftime down 26-25.

A similar story played out in the second half, with UNLV and the Falcons trading blows to begin the second half. Petraitis’ fast-break layup with 12 minutes left in the second half gave the Falcons a narrow 30-29 lead, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for eight minutes. 

Shane Nowell’s layup with 3:56 left in the second half gave UNLV the lead. UNLV surrendered the lead over a minute later and struggled to gain the lead until the final seconds.

With this win, UNLV improves to 17-11 on the year and 6-10 through conference play. UNLV currently sits 7th in Mountain West standings and remains 1.5 games behind New Mexico and San Jose State. At best, UNLV can enter the Mountain West tournament as the fifth seed.

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UNLV plays Utah State in its last home game of the year on March 1 at 8 p.m.

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