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Runnin’ Rebels pull away late, advance to title game of SoCal Challenge

UNLV proved its defense travels as it won its first game of the season away from Las Vegas, advancing to the title game of a tournament in the process.

The Runnin’ Rebels ousted the Southern Illinois Salukis, 56-49, Monday, Nov. 21 from The Pavilion at JSerra in San Juan Capistrano, California. The win ensures that UNLV will be playing in the SoCal Challenge championship game Wednesday, Nov. 23 from the same location.

After winning the other semifinals game, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1) will be awaiting the Rebels (5-0). Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

Southern Illinois will play the California Baptist Lancers in the third place consolation game.

UNLV didn’t have its first lead until the 15:44-mark of the second half after trailing by double-digits in the first half.

Fifth-year guard EJ Harkless hit a pullup jumper with less than 40 seconds left to put the Rebels up five. Moments earlier he drew a charge on the Salukis’ Lance Jones.

Harkless was named the Mountain West Player of the Week after averaging 19.5 points per game in a 2-0 week for UNLV including a win over No. 21 Dayton, where he scored a game-high 24 points.

In the first half, Harkless hit two three-pointers in a three-play span that cut the once double-digit deficit to six. He finished with 16 points on 7-of-16 from the field.

Sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert played a major role in the comeback, knocking down two second half and-one baskets but failed to convert the free throw in both instances. He converted the free throw portion of a first half and-one that trimmed the Southern Illinois lead to three.

Gilbert ended the night with a team-high 18 points on 7-of-10 from the floor including connecting on his lone three-point attempt. In the early going of the season, he is shooting 64% from beyond the arc.

Senior guard Luis Rodriguez was the final Rebel in double-figures, scoring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting including two made three-pointers.

He also hit a floater that gave UNLV a five-point lead with 3:21 to play in regulation. At the time, that was the team’s largest lead of the game

Ultimately, the team would lead by as many as seven.

Southern Illinois started the game on fire, blistering the nets to the tune of 63% from the field with a 46% clip from three-point range. That blitzkrieg helped the Salukis build an 11-point first half lead.

When Southern Illinois wasn’t knocking down shots, it was having a hard time getting them off.

UNLV forced its opponent into turnovers on its first three possessions of the game. Coming into the game, the Rebels ranked No. 1 in the nation in turnovers forced.

Despite having success on defense, UNLV was unable to score points on all three chances.

By the end of the night, the Rebels had forced the Salukis into 21 turnovers, marking the fifth straight time the team has forced 20 or more turnovers.

The brilliant shooting performance was stymied in the second half as UNLV held Southern Illinois to 20% from deep and 29% overall.

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