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Runnin’ Rebels avoid disaster, beat Mavericks by 13

It wasn’t the smoothest of games for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the team’s last outing but it did result in its third straight win.


UNLV beat Omaha, 84-71, Wednesday, Dec. 15 from the Thomas & Mack Center.


“Just proud of the guys for fighting,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “There was a moment there in the second half where we were on our heels a little bit and Omaha took the lead. We could’ve let it get to seven or eight but we did a good job digging [our] heels in the sand and fighting back and winning.”


The Rebels have won three straight games for the second time this year and the first since early November to open the season.


Their last two wins came over programs with one win apiece to their ledger.


“Man, there’s no better feeling than winning I’ll tell you that,” forward Royce Hamm Jr. said. “You’d rather not be on the other side of it. I mean it’s amazing to be with a group of guys and hit a little adversity and then to come together and find a way to respond.


“I think we showed a lot of character. A lot of guys showed a lot of character individually and as a team.”


Coming into the game, UNLV was favored by 19.5 points and had a 96.3% chance to win according to ESPN.com.


The team will host San Diego Wednesday, Dec. 22 in the last non-conference game of the season prior to the start of Mountain West conference play.


“Excited to show them the areas where we can improve,” Kruger said. “It’ll be great to get a full week [of practice] here – we really haven’t had that since we started and just get ready for San Diego.


“We get to spend a lot of time at Mendenhall with classes being out so we’re excited for that.”


A 10-1 run late in the second half pushed UNLV past Omaha and onto a third straight victory in a game that featured six ties and eight lead changes.


During that run, the Mavericks went 1-for-9 from the field.


“I think they recognized it,” Kruger said. “I think we can show them a good shot attempt from the first half then show them a great shot attempt from the second. We talk a lot of times about where you get in trouble and what gets you in trouble and I think in the first half they caught us in that half – one foot in, one foot out of trouble.”


The need for the last-minute push by the Rebels came after the team played a pretty good first half but couldn’t keep the away team off their heels.


Freshman guard Keshon Gilbert helped lead a 10-0 run in the first half where he recorded three steals in his first four minutes of action.


UNLV led by as many as 11 in the first half despite three ties late in the half.


However, a 10-2 run got Omaha back into the game before guard Felix LeMetti’s buzzer-beating three-point basket.


That shot sent UNLV into halftime down three.


“Yeah that was the emphasis, just getting downhill,” guard Josh Baker said. “Being more stubborn and getting better shots offensively and getting downhill, making plays for others instead of settling for open threes that they were giving us.”


LeMetti burned the Rebels for 20 points with six made threes.


“LeMetti made a couple of tough ones,” Kruger said. “But I think anytime in college basketball, if you let a guy get a good early look – you never want to do that and we did that.”


Four of his six threes came in the first half, suggesting the defensive changes that Kruger and company implemented worked.


“I think the [pick-and-roll defense] changed a big dynamic of the game,” Hamm Jr. said. “[LeMetti] not being able to come off the ball screen and just see the whole floor. Having extra hands and extra pressure up there to irritate him a little bit and also get the ball out of his hands and make someone else make a play.”


As a team, the Mavericks shot 12-of-29 from deep while holding the home team to 8-of-31 from beyond the arc.


“I just feel like we have to come out and be more aggressive,” Baker said. “Because if you let teams get comfortable they build confidence for shots down-the-stretch of the game.”


Five players scored in double-figures for UNLV, led by 26 points from guard Bryce Hamilton.


He also added five assists and four rebounds.


Hamm Jr. also had a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds.

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