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Runnin’ Rebels fall short in Mountain West opener against Aztecs

UNLV dropped its Mountain West conference opener despite a strong defensive performance, missing another opportunity for a statement win this season.

The Runnin’ Rebels lost, 62-55, to the San Diego State Aztecs Saturday, Jan. 1 from the Thomas & Mack Center.

This marked the third time this season UNLV has been held under 60 points and the eighth time it's been held under 65 points.

“Definitely,” senior Royce Hamm Jr. said when asked whether it was a missed opportunity for his team. “I feel like [myself] and this team are capable of winning a game like this tonight. But I think San Diego State just did a little bit better executing certain things better than us.” Head coach Kevin Kruger disagreed with the notion it was a “missed opportunity” for the team.

Coming into the game, the Rebels were 6-1 at home with their lone loss coming at the hands of a No. 2 UCLA team in late November.

The team is now 8-6 on the year and 0-1 in the Mountain West conference.

Now that a Wednesday, Jan. 5 game against San Jose State has been postponed, UNLV will have another week off before playing Air Force.

“You do get into a little bit of a rhythm playing two games a week,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “At some point in the conference schedule you get a bye week where you only play once. So I guess we’ll kind of take ours back-to-back.”

The Rebels game against the Falcons will take place Saturday, Jan. 8 in Colorado with tipoff scheduled for 7 p.m.

UNLV is 0-2 away from the Thomas & Mack Center.

Another cold stretch in the second half proved to be too much for the Rebels to overcome against the Aztecs.

Senior guard Jordan McCabe made a three-pointer with 13:32 left in the second half.

From that point forward, the Rebels were held to six points over the next nine-plus minutes.

“They’re a top-10 defensive team in the country,” senior guard Bryce Hamilton said. “They played their defense, they played very well. We were very stagnant on offense, I put that on myself. We just have to do better moving the ball and getting it in rotation.”

During that time, SDSU turned a one point lead into a lead as large as seven.

Before the end of the game, the Aztecs would lead by as many as 10 points.

“Seeing that for the first time as a group is good for them,” Kruger said. “They now know. It’s something they’ve been doing for a long time; hanging their hat defensively and they end up winning games like this because of how they defend.”

Even with its offensive struggles, UNLV’s defense kept the team in the game for the majority of the contest.

“With the best defensive performance we’ve put together all season we would’ve loved to end up with a win and have a better flow offensively,” Kruger said. “But that’s what San Diego State will do to you.”

San Diego State did not get its first lead until more than 15 minutes into the first half.

The Rebels forced the Aztecs to start the game 2-of-11 from the field while starting the game 4-0.

UNLV built a lead as large as seven during that stretch.

SDSU was playing without top two point guards Trey Pulliam and Lamont Butler.

After the game, UNLV players and coaches were both asked about the decision to not enforce the full-court trap more often.

“Yeah we for sure realized that their point guards weren’t playing and we knew they were a little bit uncomfortable bringing the ball up,” Hamilton said. “I feel like [full-court trapping] was something we should’ve done more to get them very uncomfortable.”

Kruger kept it simple following the seven-point loss.

“We usually err on the side of things we’ve worked on,” he said. “Not being a team that’s run and jumped 94 feet – it just may not have been an opportunity – we didn’t want to put our guys in a situation where there’s low likelihood they’ll succeed and feel bad because they aren’t seeing things the way we are.”

Despite holding the Aztecs to 25% shooting about 13 minutes into the game, the Rebels were only shooting 33% from the floor.

Dominance in the rebounding and points in the paint categories kept SDSU in the game and ultimately gave it the edge.

“I think [from positions] three through five they crash [the glass], they crash hard,” Hamm Jr. said. “Those guys are a good defensive team and they crash relentlessly. I think if you don’t put your body on your guy and you’re looking to get the ball, they’re coming there to crash the ball.”

The Aztecs outrebounded the Rebels 55-42 while outscoring them 30-16 in the paint.

Hamilton had 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting, including a three-point dagger to end the first half and close the deficit from six points to three.

However, 55 seconds into the second half he was called for a flagrant foul on a box-out.

That set the tone for a 3-for-11 from the field stretch in the second half for Hamilton although one of his shots in the second half gave UNLV a brief one-point lead.

“I felt [like we were pressing] a little bit,” he said. “That’s just something we have to stay poised [about] as a team and keep moving the ball and just stay together.”

The second half was frustrating for the Rebels made evident by some chirping as the clock ran down late between junior forward Donovan Williams and Aztecs senior forward Joshua Tomaic.

Williams led the team with 16 points on 5-of-13 from the floor to go along with three blocks.

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