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Spirited second half effort leads UNLV to one-point win over Air Force

A rather pedestrian shooting performance from the Thomas & Mack Center saw the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels end a three-game losing streak after a fantastic finish.


After a last-minute steal and score, UNLV beat Air Force, 54-53, Friday, Feb. 24 from the T&M in a matchup of the eighth and ninth teams in the Mountain West.


“That’s one of the hardest games I’ve played on any level, at any school I’ve been at,” fifth-year guard EJ Harkless. “To do it with these guys where we got challenged the most this year, it speaks volumes to our character.”


The win ends a two-game home losing streak for the Runnin’ Rebels. Now, the team is 9-6 at home this season.


“We struggled at home,” Harkless said. “It was good to do that at home and see everybody on their feet in the last 15 seconds. We haven’t seen that since we had it rolling.”


Overall, UNLV improves to 17-11 on the year and 6-10 in the Mountain West with the conference tournament starting a little over a week from now.


“The locker room is ecstatic,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “They were up talking to each other, talking about plays, happy, laughing. They feel great about that one – they earned that one.”


One more regular season home game sits on the schedule for the Rebels as they prepare to do battle with the Utah State Aggies. That game is set for Wednesday, March 1 with tip-off slated for 8 p.m.


“It’s very important for our confidence,” Harkless said. “Coaches have talked about it and in every postgame interview probably, to get our swagger back. That’s half the battle.”


A clutch steal on an inbound pass from reserve guard Jackie Johnson III initiated the fast break that resulted in the game-winning basket. With his 5’11” frame, Johnson high-pointed the inbounds pass near halfcourt before beginning the break.


“Jackie has stolen that pass in practice,” Harkless said. “Everybody thinks he’s small but he can jump up there and get that pass plenty of times and he happened to get one [at] the biggest part of our season.”


Having played sporadic minutes over the last couple of weeks, Johnson played 19 minutes for the first time since late December.


“It was huge for the group especially,” sophomore guard Shane Nowell said. “For him to really stay engaged really helped us long-term.”


Johnson initially found sophomore guard Kehson Gilbert in the corner as he cutted to the hoop. After missing the first attempt, Harkless soared in the air for the putback worth two points and the lead.


Harkless led all scorers with 23 points on 9-of-17 from the field. His night was highlighted by 19 points in the second half.


“It was amazing,” Nowell said. “He really works at it on and off-the-court, before practice, after practice – so it’s really easy to see how it translates. He’s a leader for this group and it really showed today with the way he played in that second half in really coming through.”


Harkless was the only UNLV player in double-digit scoring, with the next closest recording seven points in senior center David Muoka. In fact, Muoka scored six points on a perfect 3-for-3 start in the first five-plus minutes of the game.


“I thought he did a great job of being in the right place at the right time to an extent,” Kruger said. “When you play Air Force, they have a great matchup zone sometimes and then sometimes they stick with their own and it can be very confusing.”


In a game that featured 14 lead changes, the first half resembled the old cliché of a “game of runs.”


Air Force took control of the game on a 7-0 run about midway through the first half. However, after going scoreless for more than four minutes, UNLV was able to get the deficit down to a point via a 6-0 run.


Immediately after, the Falcons answered with a 5-0 run to stretch the lead back to six. The Rebels were able to tie the game at 20 apiece after countering with another 6-0 run.


UNLV was later able to take a lead as large as three points after extending the run to 9-0 while holding the opponent without a point for more than five minutes.


Even with that, the Rebels found themselves down by a point at halftime with 12 turnovers on the board.


“It’s definitely a negative to have 12 turnovers at the half,” Kruger said. “And against a team that doesn’t necessarily pressure you. They’re not up into the ball unless you drive into bad situations which I thought is what we did.


“Against Air Force, to be down one with that many turnovers at half was almost a gift.”

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