For the first time this season the student section at the Thomas & Mack Center was full. And in front of its best crowd of the season, UNLV gave its fans plenty to cheer about.
UNLV defeated Nevada Tuesday night 69-58, for its first win against its in-state rival since Feb. 7, 2018.
“That was so much fun to come out of the tunnel and just see how much life there was in the Thomas & Mack,” head coach Kevin Kruger said of the crowd. “I thought it was a direct correlation to the guys and hopefully we can keep doing that throughout the year.”
UNLV took a 10 point lead, thanks to a 14-2 run, midway in the first half, as a Keshon Gilbert steal led to a Donovan Williams dunk that brought the crowd to its feet and forced Nevada to burn an early timeout.
Jordan McCabe knocked down one of his three first half 3-pointers, with under four minutes remaining in the first half, that stopped a Wolf Pack run that had cut the lead to six points. UNLV then proceeded to go on a 10-0 run in the final minutes of the first half that brought its lead to 19 points, before taking a 42-26 lead into halftime.
UNLV held Nevada to a season-low 26 points at halftime, the final three points came from a near half-court buzzer beater from Kenan Blackshear.
The Wolf Pack, without their leading scorer Grant Sherfield, utilized their depth to make a run coming out of halftime. Nevada outscored UNLV 17-6 through the first nine minutes of the second half that cut UNLV’s lead to just five points, 48-43.
Another McCabe 3-pointer after the Nevada run sparked a 10-2 UNLV run that pushed its lead back to13 points, 58-45, with 7:20 remaining.
Nevada tried to make another run, as it cut UNLV’s lead to nine points. But Royce Hamm blocked a Will Baker layup attempt that halted any Nevada comeback attempt.
Kruger said he loved seeing his team buckle down when the Wolf Pack cut their lead from 19 to five. It was the second game in a row that UNLV held a double-digit lead going into halftime, and Kruger noted his team does not have a lot of experience in those situations, but hopes they can learn how to handle them better moving forward.
“We got a little timid,” Kruger said of the team’s second half struggles. “When we get to a point where the ball sticks a little bit, we enter a mode of not messing up, not taking a questionable shot.”
Despite the early second half struggles, UNLV had four scorers in double-digits to help carry them past Nevada. Bryce Hamilton and Williams each finished with 17 points apiece to lead the Runnin’ Rebels.
Williams had missed last Friday’s win at Colorado State. He said that there was uncertainty as to whether he would play, but his return helped take the weight off Hamilton’s shoulders by giving UNLV another scoring option on the floor.
“He’s a great player, a great scorer,” Hamilton said of Williams. “It helps a whole lot. The defense had to key into me the whole time and I’m able to have someone I can trust and pass the ball to.”
McCabe was right behind the duo with 16 points of his own, a season high for the West Virginia native. He hit four 3-pointers and helped showcase the shooting ability McCabe brings to the team.
“It felt good,” Hamilton said of McCabe’s shooting performance. “Jordan’s a great shooter. We tell him to ‘shoot, shoot,’ he stepped up today and played really well.”
Aside from this being a rivalry game, there were a lot of eyes on the Runnin’ Rebels to see how they would answer their road win at Colorado State.
Kruger was worried that the team, and especially Hamilton after his career night and being named national player of the week, would put too much pressure on themselves in this spot. But, he saw the maturity in his team as they were all eager to focus on Nevada, and that started with Hamilton.
“He was patient, he didn’t force anything early,” Kruger said of Hamilton’s performance. “He didn’t go try and get 42 [points]. I thought that was the maturity he showed in that, it was incredible.”
UNLV returns to action this Saturday to face Utah State (13-9, 4-5) on the road at 3 p.m.