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UNLV exacts revenge on Air Force, splitting season series


Photo Credit: Lucas Peltier/UNLV Athletics

Following a loss to Air Force in late January, UNLV got its revenge nearly three weeks later on its home court.


The Rebels blasted the Falcons, 78-44, Tuesday, Feb. 8 from the Thomas & Mack Center, improving to 10-3 at home.


“I mean it’s good but we’re at a point where we know what kind of team we want to be,” fifth-year forward Royce Hamm Jr. said. “We know our aspirations as a team that we set out to do. It’s a great team win, we never take any win for granted. We want to continue to grow and continue to improve as a team.”


The team was coming off a crushing road loss to a red-hot Utah State team.


“Knowing that that was a game we could’ve won and we didn’t play to our best potential,” fifth-year guard Mike Nuga said. “It lit a fire under all of us. We came into practice with that same fire like, “Yo, we just lost and we have another chance to get a team that beat us.’”


UNLV is now 14-10 this season and 6-5 in the Mountain West. Currently, the team is sixth in the conference standings.


Another road game, this time against Boise State, is up next for the program.


“Same focus,” Nuga said. “We were focused, same preparation. We know we’re playing a great team, the best team in our conference so we’re just going to buckle down, get to practice and come out and play the game.”


That game will take place Friday, Feb. 11 with tipoff scheduled for 8 p.m.


As it has all season long, UNLV were without key rotation pieces; this time it was junior forwards Donovan Williams and Victor Iwuakor.


“We’ve only had three guys play in every game,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “A lot of it has been different lineup combinations, different stretches of what we’re asking them to do. But from day one, they’ve been great, they come to work everyday with smiles on their faces.”


The tighter rotation led to longer minutes and more unique lineups that Kruger and company had never used before.


The staff was rewarded with four players scoring in double-figures.


“It was huge,” Kruger said. “Balanced scoring, efficient is the word we like to use with the guys regardless of lineup. Going into the Colorado State game, we didn’t know exactly, two days before, who was even playing. But they came together and it became a beat Colorado State by any measure and this had a similar feel like that.”


Senior guard Bryce Hamilton made his presence felt right away on both ends of the floor.


About 13 minutes into the game, Hamilton was up to nine points and five rebounds.


By halftime, he was up to 14 points with two of his eventual four made threes.


“Our guys are in the gym,” Nuga said. “Everybody’s in the gym. We can shoot like this, we have some guys who have had a rough shooting year but everyone can shoot. We have guys religiously working and our work is going to show.”


He would finish with a game-high 24 points on 9-of-15.


“This whole season has been a rollercoaster,” Nuga said. “Sometimes we don’t even know who we have. It’s amazing just to see [sophomore forward] Reece Brown is playing good minutes for us, [junior center] David Muoka is playing big minutes for us. I’m just proud of all the guys being ready for their opportunity and taking advantage of it.”


Both Hamm Jr. and junior center David Muoka added 12 points apiece.


In addition, junior guard Justin Webster scored 11 points off-the-bench.


First contest between the two teams saw UNLV’s bench get outscored by 24 points. This time around, the Rebels outscored the Falcons, 30-17.


“I think it’s great because we’re all confident,” Nuga said. “The confidence of the team is rising. When they beat us, it stung, we still felt it in the warmups today. That hunger is going to drive us for the rest of the season and we’re going to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”


UNLV tallied 20 assists on 26 made field goals with 10 assists coming from senior guard Jordan McCabe with no turnovers.”


“Yeah, you’re going to get that with Jordan,” Kruger said when referencing McCabe’s flashy passes. “He’s not shy of flair which we have no issues with but if you can do it with no turnovers, that’s even more special.”


Even with a thirty-plus point win, the Rebels didn’t snatch its first lead of the game until more than 11 minutes into the game.


To start the game, the team was 1-of-6 from the field but never fell behind by more than six points.


“We were a little nervous early,” Kruger said. “I thought [the crowd] did a really good job of keeping us lifted, our offense just got a little slow – a little hesitant. But once the flow started to get better and the cuts had a little more purpose, it started to feel good. It was fun to watch, they were sharing it – I mean 20 assists on 26 made field goals – Might be our best percentage of the year.”


That lead never grew because the defense on Air Force was suffocating for about 35 of the 40-minute ballgame.


“I think we did a much better job [defending them] than we did the first time we played up [at] Air Force,” Hamm Jr. said. “The defensive prep, for me, was to be in conscious help. I think the last time, the back cuts and the backdoors kind of hurt us a lot.”


UNLV’s combination of stout defense and an offense that got the jitters out early, allowed the team to take a 14-point lead into halftime.


Even then, it wasn’t enough.


“That was an emphasis we talked about at halftime,” Kruger said. “Getting out there and continuing the momentum. We didn’t get off to a great start the first seven or eight minutes but we closed that last 12 or 13 minutes well and we wanted to keep that going. But a lot of that is also having played against [the Falcons] for a half.”


The speech must’ve worked as the Rebels came out and held the Falcons scoreless for the first five-plus minutes of the second half.


During that time, UNLV was able to push the lead to 21 points.


The potent offense lasted until the final buzzer as late in the half the team went on a stretch of seven makes in eight tries.


Before the end of the game, UNLV got the lead up to the final disparity of 34 points.


“I think we started off really, really good defensively,” Hamm Jr. said. “But then we hit a bump in the road and I think just getting back to what we do: ripping, creating the right habits everyday in practice. Over the course of the year, I think defense is really going to be our anchor.”

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