For the first time since 2017-18, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels are off to an undefeated 2-0 start to open the season.
Most recently, the team withstood a defensive war with the California Golden Bears, beating the Pac-12 member, 55-52, Saturday, Nov. 13.
“A number of opportunities where things could’ve gone the other way,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “They just continued to fight and battle and come together.”
It is the program’s second win against a Power-5 conference school in the last two seasons. Last year’s team beat Kansas State on the road.
“Honestly, we’re a very humble team,” guard Michael Nuga said. “Yes we are 2-0 but we’ll look at the next game like we’re 0-2 and we’re trying to prove something. Every game we go into we have a chip on our shoulder. We were picked [to finish seventh]. We wear UNLV on our chests with pride and we’re here to bring it back to where it once was and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The team will look to keep the momentum going with a third straight home game Monday, Nov. 15 against the North Dakota State Bison.
Kruger and company has been preaching defense first for this program and it showed during the last four and a half minutes of the game, where the UNLV defense was able to hold Cal to just four points.
“Coach Kruger came in the huddle during that last timeout and he asked us what we wanted to do defensive scheme-wise,” McCabe said. “He said, ‘I asked for a reason and not because I had an answer already.’ And we said we wanted to stop them, straight up.”
In the last four minutes, fifth-year transfer Royce Hamm Jr. skied high for a block with under 30 seconds to play and the Rebels up by a point.
Before the final play of the game, Kruger took a timeout to ask his team if they wanted to play defense straight up or foul and send Cal to the line with the team already up three.
“Confidence really,” Kruger said when asked what he hoped to hear. “We’ve got a number of things in that situation, as does everybody, being up three in that situation with a couple of seconds left.”
The method worked as UNLV forced an errant last-second shot to escape with the win without an overtime period.
“Out of that timeout, they couldn’t have executed defensively any better what we asked them to do,” Kruger said. “We had about three actions we thought they might do and they guarded it absolutely perfectly.”
There was even a stretch where the Runnin’ Rebels were scoreless for more than five minutes while the Golden Bears went on a 11-0 run.
Even during that time, Kruger opted to not use a timeout.
“Yeah [it was seeing how the team would respond to it] a little bit,” he said. “Again, [they’re] older guys, I wanted to see what they’ll do. Are they going to talk? Are they going to splinter?
“That’s huge, if you can keep teams from making runs and you don’t have to call timeouts and you can use them toward the end. Cause had we taken one there, we wouldn’t have had one there with 12 seconds left to ask them what they wanted to do -- we would’ve had to just play it.”
Yet when the team needed it most, senior guard Bryce Hamilton came alive, breaking a 46-46 tie with a made three-pointer.
That was the third and last tie of the game, in a contest that featured six lead changes.
Hamilton started the game with five points on 2-of-8 shooting through the first 24 minutes of his time on the floor.
He responded by scoring five points in the last two and a half minutes, making clutch shot after another.
While Hamilton was struggling the other guards on the team held down the fort by committee.
“We’re not a team that’s been together for three years, four years and everybody’s gelled and knows what’s going on,” McCabe said. “We’re all learning as we go. Those lineups give us the ability to keep teams on their toes. They don’t know what’s going on and it makes us dangerous.”
After scoring four points in his debut, Nuga had seven points in the first 17 minutes of the game.
In addition, he was the first Rebel player into double-figures, knocking down a three early in the second half.
It was the first game action for McCabe after sitting out the opener due to suspension.
“I was nervous a little bit, I’m not going to lie to you,” McCabe said. “I’m always nervous but it felt good to be back out there with the guys. They put in so much work, we all do as a unit so it’s good to kind of reap the benefits of that with everybody.”
McCabe was the main play initiator for a lot of his time on the floor, allowing some of his fellow guard counterparts to reap the benefits of his orchestration.
“It’s amazing to finally have him back and playing with us,” Nuga said. “What he adds is just control and pace to the game. He’s such a controlled point guard -- just playing with him, the energy he gives us, even in practice. Adding him to the floor just elevates everybody’s game.
Another bright spot was the play of freshman guard Keshon Gilbert, whose defense along with timely buckets caught the eyes of many.
His lone made three-pointer came in the first half, giving UNLV a one-point lead.
“The kid’s a dog, he’s a dog,” McCabe said. “Once again, all this stays in here, don’t let him hear me say that. That’s my roommate and his head will get too big if he hears me say that.”