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Runnin' Rebels smother Firebirds for second win of season

UNLV returned home for the first time in 48 days to a dominating 95-34 win over St. Katherine in its second home game of the season.

The Runnin’ Rebels improved to 2-6 on the year after losing back-to-back games since restarting it’s program due to COVID-19.

“Excited to get back in Thomas & Mack and have our guys [get] the opportunity to play on our court,” head coach TJ Otzelberger said. “It’s good to do that, it felt like an opportunity to get some other guys looks and get our conditioning better.”

Otzelberger emphasized that conditioning was a driving factor in choosing to schedule this game.

“We’re a bit behind for sure, with the layoff -- that’s the truth of the matter,” Otzelberger admitted. “It’s certainly not an excuse, overall I think we just have to be mindful of that in practice and in how we continue to do things.”

Now UNLV will turn its attention back to the Mountain West conference welcoming New Mexico into the Thomas & Mack Center for back-to-back games Saturday, Jan. 16 and Monday, Jan. 18.

“Number one [St. Katherine] played some changing defenses,” Otzelberger said. “Going from man to zone so having that recognition and being able to execute a possession with multiple guys playing point guard was a challenge so that was really a big positive for us.

“I really get to work on ball-screen coverage, I think that’s been an area we’ve needed a lot of improvement on. Not only the guy guarding the ball but the big and our help defense.”

Saturday’s tip-off is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

As many expected, the size of the Runnin’ Rebels was just too much for the Firebirds, holding them to 21 percent from the field and forcing them into 18 turnovers.

UNLV tallied seven steals along with two blocks while stifling the St. Katherine offense into bad decision after bad decision.

“I think once we got into that defensive rhythm, I think we did a good job,” Otzelberger said. “We still are fouling a lot more than we need to, we committed 16 fouls so that’s something we’ve got to be better with because we can’t just put people on the foul line.”

On the other side of the ball, the Firebirds recorded four steals.

In the first eight minutes of the game, the Rebels forced its opponent into two shot clock violations, three overall.

At halftime, UNLV held its largest lead of the game at 29 points.

In the first three minutes of the second half, that lead had ballooned to 36 points.

“[The coaches] emphasized three things in practice so we were just trying to focus on those things that would make us successful in the future,” senior forward Cheikh Mbacke Diong said. “We were just trying to execute the game plan and what they told us to do.”

The Rebels would eventually hold a lead as large as 62 points, with the Firebirds coming away with only one second half field goal.

A lot of the offensive damage early came inside the paint against St. Katherine with UNLV ending the game with 44 points in the paint.

The Rebels also held the Firebirds to just 10 points in the paint on the other end.

Mbacke led all scorers with a season-high 18 points after scoring a combined 18 points in the two games at Colorado State.

During a stretch in the first half, Mbacke scored six straight points and 10 of 12 for the Rebels.

“He’s probably impacted winning as much as anyone on our team,” Otzelberger said. “Both by the numbers and by the level of intensity he plays with. I thought in Colorado he was particularly exceptional on the offensive glass and that really helped us.

“So for him today, when he’s out there on the perimeter -- stretching out passes, getting some denials and going in transition, that’s good for us. We trust him and we know we can go to him more than we have at this point, he needs to be more involved in our offense and we’re going to continue to work him in that way.”

Four players scored in double figures for UNLV after only two players scored in double figures last game.

Overall, the Rebels had 10 players score in the contest.

“It’s really important to have people that can come in and score,” Mbacke said. “But our focus for this team is on the other end of the court. We can score the ball, we have shooters, we have drivers and everything. We just need to be better on defense and just trust what the coaches are telling us and apply it on the court.”

Junior guard David Jenkins Jr. also stayed in his rhythm scoring 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting to go along with five assists.

He flashed in the second half showcasing his passing skills with a behind-the-back dump off to guard Caleb Grill on a three-on-one fast break.

Moments later, he threw a lob pass to sophomore forward Moses Wood for the alley-oop connection then immediately drew the charge on defense, his second drawn charge of the game.

“It was good to see [Wood] get the confidence going,” Otzelberger said. “He’s made some plays for us this year defensively on the interior, he’s done a good job helping protect the rim and rebounding around the goal so it was good to see him offensively have a little bit of a spark.”

Wood tied a career-high with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field, including going 3-of-4 from three-point range.

Junior guard Bryce Hamilton scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting in just 21 minutes of action.

He has now scored in double figures in 27 straight games.

“I think we wanted to get a lot of guys game experience and opportunities,” Otzelberger said. “We had nine guys play 16 minutes or more so we’ve got to get those guys more experience. Also, we also didn’t want to play guys too heavy minutes with a game coming up.”

No starter played more than 24 minutes and nine different players logged at least 16 minutes of game action.

NOTE: Junior guard Marvin Coleman returned to the lineup after missing the last two games due to medical reasons.

“Having [Coleman] out there gives us another body that we trust and we’re confident in,” Otzelberger said. “Just a chance for [him] to get in the game. It’s been a while for everybody but obviously with Marvin not playing against Colorado State but getting him back out there was really important for us heading into New Mexico.”

Coleman scored six points going perfect from the field and dishing out six assists in his first action since Dec. 5.

“It was great to have him because he’s one of the leaders of the team, he’s a captain,” Mbacke said. “He played his heart out and he always brings energy and leadership trying to get guys in their spot and trying to put us in the right position as a point guard.”

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