After essentially blazing through the non-conference part of their schedule, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels have dropped both of their first two conference games to open Mountain West play.
It was a New Year’s Eve that turned sour for UNLV as the San Diego State Aztecs came into the Thomas & Mack Center and walked away with a, 76-67, win over the Rebels.
“It’s a long conference schedule ahead of us,” senior guard Luis Rodriguez said. “We’re not off to the start that we want to be yet but we don’t want to get discouraged because we know the type of team we are.”
Overall, UNLV has now lost three of its last four games since starting the year 10-0, off to its best start as a program since the 1990-91 season. As of now, the team is 11-3 on the year and 0-2 in the Mountain West, losing back-to-back games for the first time this season.
“I think we just need to put our head down and go back to work,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got another week before we play our next game so I think this week will be big for us, in preparation and just getting back to what we do.
“It’s in us, we didn’t start 10-0 for no reason.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Rebels as they will now prepare to head to the road for a date with the No. 22 New Mexico Lobos, who are still undefeated this season at 14-0.
“The locker room is never happy after a loss,” Rodriguez said. “The biggest thing for us is to just stay connected. There's a lot of basketball left to be played.”
That game is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 7 with tip-off slated for 6:30 p.m.
The three-point ball was working early for UNLV but as it abandoned the team so did the rest of its offense.
An early 11-0 run from the home team was ushered through on 3-of-4 shooting from beyond the arc. At that point, the Rebels had built a seven-point lead.
A dry-spell from deep would soon come for UNLV as the team watched its lead dwindle and eventually turn into an SDSU lead. When the Aztecs grabbed the 23-21 lead with about eight minutes to play before halftime, it marked the first lead for the road team since leading 10-9 with more than 15 minutes left to go.
San Diego State would stretch that lead to five and then eight on an 8-0 run. Before long, the lead would grow to as many as 14 points in the first half. By halftime, UNLV trailed by 11 points, shooting 4-of-14 from beyond the arc on the way to a 10-for-36 mark by the final buzzer.
“Anytime you finish a game like this against San Diego State, you’re probably going to pat them on the back pretty good,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “They’re elite defensively, they’ve been elite for as long as I can remember.”
The Aztecs made 10 of their 21 attempts from long-range.
SDSU guard Matt Bradley lit UNLV up for 14 first half points on his way to 23 points with five made three-pointers.
“In the second half we clearly did a lot better until we started to foul there at the end,” Kruger said. “They were in the low 20% for a lot of it so guys adjusted. When they were able to get that cushion in the first half, I thought we just did some things that were uncharacteristic of us and they made us pay.”
More than midway through the second half, the Rebels lost Bradley again as he cashed in one of his five threes. That marked the first of back-to-back threes by the road team to push the lead to 14 points.
Two separate 7-0 runs by UNLV cut the once double-digit lead down to five and seven respectively. However, the team could never get any closer than five points down-the-stretch.
Rodriguez led all scorers in the game with 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting including four made threes.
Over the last two home games, Rodriguez has poured in 42 points on 54% from the field including nine deep balls. In the last road outing for UNLV, he was held to just five points on five shot attempts.
“Luis is always praised for how hard he plays,” Kruger said. “If there’s been any consistency in Luis, it’s been without a question how hard he plays.”
With the Rebels in dire need of offense early, Rodriguez filled the gap with seven early points on a perfect 3-for-3 from the floor. He was unable to finish the final minutes of regulation after fouling out with 1:31 left in regulation.
In fact, he picked up three fouls in a 1:06-span.
Fellow senior EJ Harkless finished with 18 points on 6-of-19 from the floor. Over the last two games, he has been held to 15-of-41 from the field.
Sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert was handcuffed to the tune of just one point in 28 minutes of action to go along with three assists, two rebounds and two steals.
“It’s basketball, it’s not always going to go your way,” Rodriguez said. “We know the type of player he’s been for us this year. He puts the work in so he’ll get back on track.” Due to the sluggish start to things, Gilbert was not on the floor in the waning seconds of regulation in favor of senior guard Jordan McCabe.
“I think benched is kind of a harsh word for somebody who's been so good for us,” Kruger said. “I thought Jordan did a good job when he was out there, I just felt like Keshon was pressing a little bit when he was out there.”
Gilbert and McCabe combined to score five points on 1-of-10 shooting.