UNLV finally has its first conference win of the season, 10 days after playing its Mountain West opener.
The Runnin’ Rebels beat the New Mexico Lobos, 85-56, Tuesday, Jan. 11 from the Thomas & Mack Center.
It’s now seven straight wins as a program over New Mexico.
“It was huge for us to come back together and get on the right track,” senior forward Royce Hamm Jr. said. “We had several guys go down, including some staff members, so we’ve just started getting back together over the last two or three days.” Now at 9-6 on the year, UNLV is 1-1 in the Mountain West with the finale to its two-game homestand on the horizon.
The team is 7-2 at home this year.
With the COVID scare hopefully past the team, the program hopes for two days of preparation and practice before the next game.
“They love being in the gym,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “Of course, now we’ve got to be more cautious with who's going through Mendenhall [Center] but there’s always a ball bouncing in there. If it's not a ball bouncing in there, they’re down in the lounge watching games or in the training room getting treatment.
“They’re just a group that loves to be in the gym, they like to be around each other.” Fresno State will head to the desert for a Friday, Jan. 14 matchup at the Thomas & Mack Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.
In a zoom call earlier this week, Kruger admitted that COVID-19 had “made its way through the program.”
Due to the team being in-and-out of quarantine, the team had no practice time as a full group, only a group as large as seven.
That said, it was unclear until shortly before the start of the game who would be available for Kruger and company.
“For us, we really didn’t know,” Junior forward Donovan Williams said. “But ‘Nobody Cares,’ that’s been our mantra, Coach Kruger has emphasized it especially this week that nobody cares if we were down seven players.”
According to Kruger, he did not know he would have a full arsenal of players until the day of the game.
UNLV was able to play all of its 14 players, with no one logging more than 28 minutes.
Williams led the way with 29 points on 10-of-12 from the field, which included making his first eight from the field. He also made both of his three-point attempts.
“I give a lot of the credit to [forward Victor Iwuakor] and [forward David Muoka],” he said. “They’ve come along so well over the last few months or so. At the start of the season, I had to play big a lot.
“But now going back to the wing, my natural position – it’s just natural, I can’t even sit here and say that I try to go out there and do that. I go out there and I just play basketball.”
Williams scored 13 of his 29 points in the first half where the Rebels built a lead as large as 12 in the first half. It would grow to as large as 20 before the end of the game.
“Oh yeah, I’ll take all the credit – it’s all me,” Kruger said with a smile. “No but Donovan obviously is talented and has got a skill set that’s unique. He covers so much ground but I think as much as anything it’s just kind of the relationship between the team and understanding where he can have an impact.”
Leading scorer Bryce Hamilton struggled, scoring 17 points on 5-of-17 shooting.
But as he has all season-long, Hamilton came along late in the second half, scoring 12 of his 17 points in the second half.
Many questioned coming into the game, how UNLV would defend New Mexico guards Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House.
The Lobo duo average 35.1 points per game combined.
“Just keeping the ball in front,” Kruger said. “That’s something we’ve been highlighting and the guys have continued to get better at.
“When you watch guys like House and Mashburn you know those guys are really tough to guard because they have a lot of freedom and they’re incredibly talented [with] both hands.”
Kruger also explained the team had to do it’s own film study considering the COVID circumstances.
From the jump the Rebels were up for the test, opening the game 12-0 over its conference foe in a game where the Lobos never led.
New Mexico did not score its first field goal of the game until the 14:32-mark of the first half.
“I think it's a credit to our defense and us having the anticipation of playing after not playing for a week, coming out kind of fired up,” Hamm said. “Also over the last couple of days, getting back around each other and building that camaraderie and just making the right play.”
Hamm tallied another double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds.
Aside from two late first half field goals from House, the duo of him and Mashburn Jr. was held to nine points on 4-of-8 from the field in the first 20 minutes as a unit.
By the end of the game, the pair had combined for 19 points on 7-of-21 shooting, including going 1-for-10 from three-point range.
“As much as we play offense, I think our identity has been defense,” Williams said. “During a stretch in the season we kind of got away from that, letting teams go on big runs and score but I think coming into conference we really kind of buckled down.”
Redshirt-junior KJ Jenkins did most of the heavy lifting, scoring 26 of the 56 Lobo points.
Coming into the game, Jenkins averaged 9.0 points per game.