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UNLV avenges first loss of season with 11-point win over Southern Mississippi

When UNLV and Southern Mississippi squared off from the Thomas & Mack Center, one thing was for certain, somebody was leaving with its second loss of the season.

The Runnin’ Rebels made sure it wasn’t them by securing a, 74-63, win over the Golden Eagles Thursday, Dec. 22.

“I thought we did kind of carry that loss into tonight,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “I felt like maybe that was why we were a little bit slow.”

UNLV pulled off the victory to avoid back-to-back losses for the first time this season. In the team’s last outing, the Rebels were ousted by the San Francisco Dons by two points from the T&M. That put an end to the best start for the program since 1990-91.

“Having that feeling was obviously new to this group,” Kruger said. “I thought it kind of carried on for a few days. That’s tough when you got four or five days after a loss where you felt you should’ve done something different, myself included.”

Now, UNLV ends the non-conference schedule 11-1, good for second in the Mountain West ahead of conference play.

The team will open conference play with a road test against San Jose State Wednesday, Dec. 28 with tip-off scheduled for 7 p.m.

“That’s No. 1 to win,” senior guard Luis Rodriguez said. “I think the non-conference did a good job of preparing us for what’s to come. It’s a lot of hard work ahead, we just have to keep it day-by-day, never get content and just work”

A 15-0 second half run allowed the Rebels to flip a three-point deficit into a 12-point lead.

“Just learning from last game,” Rodriguez said. “We knew not to get complacent, content or anything like that. We knew it was going to be a fight the whole game.”

Earlier in the half, fifth-year guard EJ Harkless captured the lead for UNLV, giving the team its first lead since 32-28 late in the first half.

To take that four-point lead late in the first half, the Rebels used a 5-0 run to gain the edge. The Golden Eagles countered with a 5-0 run of their own to end the half, up one.

“It definitely gave us that deja vu feeling,” Harkless said. “That it could happen again and we don’t ever want to have that loss again. It was on us that last game and we didn’t want to let the same mistakes – it’s insanity to have the same mistakes again.”

By halftime, there had been 10 lead changes in the game. At the sound of the final buzzer, there were 13.

Coming into the game, Southern Mississippi had held opponents to an average of 59.6 points per game. For more than three and a half minutes in the first half, it held UNLV scoreless with the use of a matchup zone.

“I think [the Golden Eagles] were playing the lanes really well,” Rodriguez said. “I was just telling the guys to stay aggressive and let’s get in the gaps and make plays for each other.”

It took the Rebels nearly three minutes to score their first points of the game. When it did it was on a made three from Rodriguez, one of five on the night for him, which set a new career-high.

“We encourage our guys to hunt catch-and-shoot three-point opportunities,” Kruger said. “Lu’s form is textbook. If you’re going to show your kids how to shoot a ball, Lu, [fifth-year senior Jordan McCabe], EJ, you can go down the list with these guys. They shoot it about as mechanically sound as you can shoot it.”

Rodriguez knocked down three first half three-pointers, tying a career-high in the process. He drained another in the second half with 12:34 left on the clock to give UNLV a five-point lead, their largest of the game at the time.

“Lu even brought up in a timeout, ‘What more could we have asked for than almost an identical situation to San Francisco?’” Kruger said. “He obviously, very clearly, took that game to heart and did what he felt he needed to do to have a different outcome tonight.” Rodriguez finished with 18 points on 6-of-12 from the floor in addition to seven rebounds and four steals.

Harkless led the team in scoring with 19 points, 15 of which came in the second half. He scored a layup plus the foul with just over three minutes left in regulation to put the home team up 11.

“I just heard the guys telling me – telling everybody – to play harder honestly,” he said. “Everybody had to play better in the second half because [the Golden Eagles] came out and hit us in the mouth pretty good.”

Senior guard Justin Webster was the final Rebel in double-figures with 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting but he did hit a clutch three down-the-stretch to put the game out of reach.

“It’s a super help for us,” Harkless said. “This is probably the best offensive team I’ve been on in college [and] I’ve been on a lot of teams, man.”


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