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UNLV clamps down when it matters most, win season opener over Southern

The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels avoided disaster as the team’s defense prevailed in the team’s 2022-23 season opener despite some shaky offensive moments.

UNLV outlasted Southern, 66-56, Monday, Nov. 7 from the Thomas & Mack Center to open the college basketball season.

“Defense saved us,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “Twenty-eight turnovers and 17 in the first half. Offensively, hitting those stagnant stretches, it was nice to have some security on the bench and a feeling that if we could just move it and get a couple of good shots [we’d be fine].”

Kruger is entering his second year as head coach of the Rebels and is ushering in a roster that only has six returners versus nine newcomers. In addition, the team is in its first year without guard Bryce Hamilton, who left campus as the program’s eighth leading scorer on the all-time list.

Now with a 1-0 record, UNLV will stay in town for a Saturday, Nov. 12 matchup against Incarnate Word. Tip-off is scheduled for 3 p.m. from the Thomas & Mack Center.

“Just excited to get back in the gym,” Kruger said. “Because I think we’re going to have a ton of film that we can look at and point out things that they’ll notice – things that we talked about that we can continue to improve on for Saturday.”

The expectation that this year’s Rebel team would hang its hat on defense came to fruition in the team’s season opener as it propelled the team to a 1-0 start to the year.

The defense was so strong that it allowed the team to overcome a seven-plus minute scoreless drought late in the second half. During that time, the Jaguars were able to get the lead down to seven.

To compound matters, Southern used a full-court trap or press to speed up the UNLV offense.

“Just be a receiver man,” guard Keshon Gilbert said. “Don’t run away from the ball. Be there for your teammate, it’s not rocket science.”

At one point in the second half, UNLV was up by as many as 17 points. In the first half, the team built the lead to as large as 11 points.

Less than four and a half minutes into the contest, the Rebels had forced the road team into six turnovers on the way to 10 in the first nine and a half minutes. By the end of the first half, the Jaguars had committed 17 turnovers but only trailed by eight points at the break.

“It would’ve been great [to have a bigger lead],” Kruger said. “I think a lot of it just boils down to our offense just needs to get a little more comfortable.”

UNLV was able to hustle up 20 points off of an eventual 28 turnovers from Southern. On the other end, the Rebels gave up 27 points off of their 18 turnovers.

“We were dead last in the league last year in points created off turnovers,” Kruger said. “We just didn’t create a lot of turnovers so it was hard to get any free buckets last year.”

The defensive pressure allowed for easy baskets in fast break situations for the home team in front of the TMC fans for the first time this season.

About midway through the first half, guard EJ Harkless completed a steal coupled with a no-look, behind-the-head pass to Gilbert who opted to go fancy with the off-the-backboard alley-oop to guard Luis Rodriguez.

“It’s crazy because last week I sent a screen record to EJ and I was running the floor hard,” Gilbert said. “I was like, ‘If you see me man, throw it.’ He saw me, he threw it to me, I seen Lu trailing so I just threw it off the backboard and he dunked it.”

Not long after, Rodriguez finished a layup on the backend of a behind-the-back pass from guard Jackie Johnson III. After the game, Kruger admitted he had no problem with the flashiness of the team in fast break situations.

“Hey he made it,” Kruger said with a smile. “Had it not gone in, I’m not really sure what would’ve happened but we don’t have to worry about that today. It’s fun, I mean, they’re out there having fun, creating off a turnover.

“If they can go out there and create 28 turnovers and shoot threes and get dunks, I think they should have as much fun as they can have doing that.”

Gilbert, Harkless and Johnson all scored in double-figures with 13, 11 and 10 points respectively.

“We all have that responsibility,” Gilbert said about the team’s balanced scoring. “We trust each other so there really isn’t a ‘guy.’


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