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Runnin’ Rebels win on opening night despite cold shooting

Thanks to an equally horrendous shooting performance from Gardner-Webb, UNLV was able to escape its season opener with a win despite shooting 30% from the field.

“It feels amazing especially since it was after my birthday,” senior guard Bryce Hamilton said. “Getting that win felt great. We played well as a team even though we didn’t have our best game. I felt like we showed a lot of fight and found a way to win.”

UNLV moves to 1-0 to start the season, giving head coach Kevin Kruger his first career coaching win.

“It was amazing for me to come here with this group of guys,” fifth-year transfer Royce Hamm Jr. said. “And also big kudos to getting Coach Kruger his first win.”

Kruger played his senior year for the Runnin’ Rebels in 2007.

“It means a lot having this opportunity here,” he said. “It probably feels more special than if it were to be somewhere else to get that first one.”

The team will go for win No. 2 against the California Golden Bears Saturday, Nov. 13 with tip-off set for 5 p.m. from the Thomas & Mack Center.

Hamilton, who was the team’s leading scorer, had a rough start to the game but got it going when it mattered most.

“Just staying confident,” he said. “My teammates give me that confidence every single day, they tell me ‘Just keep shooting, just keep shooting.’ And I put in the work too and I trust my work also.”

Hamilton scored 11 of the Rebels’ last 13 points over the last 4:56 of regulation, beginning with a mid-range jumper that broke a 51-all tie.

Minutes later with a 55-51, Hamilton hit a big three-pointer coming out of a timeout.

“I felt like it was much needed,” he said. “It was a great play, I work on my three-point shot -- I’ve been working on that a lot so I was able to deliver.” Kruger spoke candidly about the conversation in the huddle prior to the three.

“We talked as a staff about what we wanted to run,” he said. “And we came to the conclusion: We’re going to go through him. Night-in and night-out, we’re going to put a lot of the offensive responsibility on him.”

Hamilton started the game 2-of-9 from the field while the team struggled as a whole.

“We take pride in our defense,” he said. “Even though we played terribly on the offensive end, we found a way to win. That just shows how good of a team we can be.”

About 13 minutes into the game, UNLV was shooting 23.8% from the floor with three airballs.

Moreover, the Rebels were 1-of-12 from three-point range.

By the end of the first half, UNLV was shooting 18% from the field and just 5% from three.

“We’ll take this one as a staff,” Kruger said. “Because we maybe didn’t put as much emphasis on the offensive side of the ball until a little more recently because we really felt we could make an imprint with this team defensively.” Hamm Jr., who is a Texas-transfer, had an impressive debut in Runnin’ Rebel red posting a monster double-double with 18 points and 17 rebounds.

“Aw man, he’s amazing,” Hamilton said. “Royce works hard, he’s probably one of our hardest workers on the team, we expected that from Royce. He does that every single day so that’s not a big surprise for us and [he’s] going to keep doing it.”

Hamm secured his double-double 35 seconds into the second half after posting eight points and nine rebounds in the first.

It was claimed on a highlight-reel play as he turned away a shot attempt with a block and finished the series with an offensive rebound and and-one putback.

He even knocked down the lone Rebel three-pointer for most of the game, extending an NCAA-record for most games with a consecutive made three-pointer at 1,130.

“That was our main point in the locker room afterwards was just how happy we were for Royce because he deserves it,” Kruger said. “He’s a home run of a human so it was great to see him have this little bit of success early on.”

Hamm is one of 11 newcomers (nine active) on the roster for Kruger and staff.

Early in the game, Hamm was one of the only bright spots for the UNLV offense as Gardner-Webb was dominant down low.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs started the game scoring 14 of their first 15 points in the paint, building a lead as large as five.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Senior transfer guard Jordan McCabe did not play while serving a one-game suspension from the NCAA for playing in an unsanctioned event.

McCabe is expected to play Saturday against California.

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