For the first time this season, the UNLV men’s basketball team is riding a two-game win streak following a wire-to-wire win over New Mexico.
The Runnin’ Rebels ousted the Lobos, 77-54, Saturday, Jan. 16 from the Thomas & Mack Center in the first of a two-game set.
“I was pleased with our guys' focus and effort coming into this game,” head coach TJ Otzelberger said.
UNLV has won its last two games by a combined 84 points.
The Rebels are now 3-6 on the year and are 1-2 in the Mountain West after securing their first conference win of the season.
The next game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 18 in a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee.
The program announced before the game that junior guard Marvin Coleman would miss the remainder of the season after suffering a stress fracture in his right leg.
“Almost a mantra from [Coleman] is never get too high and never get too low,” freshman Nick Blake said. “Just take everything with a grain of salt. He was put into the point guard position last year the same way I am now so there’s no better person to learn from.”
Otzelberger said, “There’s things as far as leadership, communication, coachability, command, character -- I think of so many things when it comes to [Coleman] that you can’t really replace.
“He’s a phenomenal young man and he means so much to me and this program.”
Coleman was averaging a little under seven points per game and led the team with four assists per game.
Otzelberger later praised the presence of Coleman on-the-court and expressed how it would be missed in addition to his communication skills.
It was a complete team effort as senior forward Cheikh Mbacke Diong led all scorers with 20 points, setting a new season and career-high.
“I’m really proud of Mbacke Diong,” Otzelberger said. “I thought he was the difference in the game when he stepped up and controlled the paint on both ends, we separated.”
Mbacke also added six rebounds, two steals and a block in 32 minutes of action.
“I think Mbacke is a very high character, selfless, hard-working man and he really wants our team to win,” Otzelberger said. “So his intent and heart is always in the right place. He covers up so much for us defensively night-in and night-out that don’t show up on the stat sheet, so it was nice to see him get rewarded with a night where he scores the ball.”
The Senegal native’s play helped UNLV win the rebounding battle, 36-31.
“Mbacke improves everyday,” Blake said. “He’s one of our leaders and captains, he pushes everybody. It’s almost hard to be hard on him because he’s so hard on himself.”
Blake also set a new career-high after scoring 18 points on 7-of-13 from the field including going 4-for-6 from three-point range.
“I love how [Blake] played,” Otzelberger said. “His confidence is growing, he hasn’t had the summer with everything going on and we haven’t had the time in the gym with him so we’re a little but behind where we’d like to be but you see him making his climb.”
As the season has progressed, Otzelberger has made Blake a primary ball handler at times for the Rebel offense.
“In the recruiting process, I remember those early conversations with [Blake] and I said the thing I like best about his game is when he went and got a defensive rebound and he led the break,” Otzelberger said. “He can push it with some force and some pace and really accelerate the game when he gets in the open court.”
With Coleman out for the season, Blake is expected to have the ball in his hands a lot more.
“Really I just have to come in with an impact,” Blake said. “He’s our leader, he’s one of our captains, he’s our point guard. I just have to go out there and be poised. I know I have to take on a lot, I have to move the ball, get into the paint, rebound, defend [and] score for us.”
Being one of the seven freshmen on this team, Blake spoke about how Coleman’s leadership has helped prepare not only him for this task but the entire team.
“It’s a journey,” Blake said. “There’s a lot of things that’s going to happen but if you just work hard and not get too frustrated with things because you are going to have some lows but you can’t get too low about it.”
Junior guard Bryce Hamilton had a big name setting a new career-high in assists, nearing a triple-double along the way.
“I believe the sky's the limit,” Blake said. “I tell [Hamilton] everyday he’s an NBA player and that he’s a pro -- he gets to score at will. I feel like sometimes if he’s missing or he’s having an off night, it’s almost self-inflicted because he’s forcing shots.
“So when he’s able to get downhill and make plays for us too? It’s just hard to guard.” Hamilton finished with 19 points on 50 percent from the floor, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals.
Last year, Coleman secured the first triple-double for the program since 1999 against New Mexico about a year ago.
Otzelberger mentioned that he told his team he wanted it to “celebrate each other,” in the midst of a team captain going down to injury.
Coupling the injury with a pandemic that has halted all fans from entering the TMC, Otzelberger also elaborated on what he’s told his team about creating the energy in the arena.
“Those guys have been great teammates,” Otzelberger said. “It’s not always easy to do when you don’t get game opportunities or the minutes you’d like or you’ve got to come everyday to practice [but] I thought those guys really set the tone down there.
“I’m proud of them for that because it’s great for our team, it’s a great life lesson and it brings energy to the [team].”
For the second straight game, UNLV had four players score in double-figures.
Despite all the offensive standouts, Otzelberger pointed to the team’s attention to detail on defense as a main catalyst for this win.
“I was proud of our intent defensively to come out,” Otzelberger said. “I don’t think it’s been a secret: my opinion on how you win basketball games is you defend, you rebound and you try to get out in the open court.”
Coming into the game, Makuach Maluach was the only Lobo player averaging double figures in points.
He was the only New Mexico player in double figures in this one as well until 4:16 left in regulation when Valdir Manuel joined him.
For the second consecutive game, turnovers told the story for this UNLV defense.
The Rebels forced two shot-clock violations in the first three Lobo possessions. Later in the second half, UNLV would force a third violation.
Overall, the Rebels forced three turnovers in their first four defensive possessions.
UNLV forced four turnovers in the first five minutes of the game on the way to forcing 14 in total.