The best start in over a decade for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels continued Wednesday, Dec. 7 as the team rolled in a neutral site contest with the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.
UNLV beat Hawaii, 77-62, inside The Dollar Loan Center to improve to 9-0 in the non-conference portion of its schedule.
“It feels great,” senior guard Justin Webster said. “We’re playing as a team, I think everybody can see that. We love being around each other and I think that bleeds onto the court and creates great chemistry.”
Playing inside The DLC for the first time as a program, the Rebels played in front of new football head coach Barry Odom and last year’s leading scorer Bryce Hamilton, who currently plays for the South Bay Lakers in the NBA G League.
“It’s a good intimate feel,” head coach Kevin Kruger said when describing coaching in The DLC. “It feels like the T-Mobile Arena without the upper deck. From the seats, to the court, to the lights to the jumbotron. It’s just a great facility and hopefully we can get a couple of games in here whether it be the rodeo or teams that don’t want to play a true road game in the Thomas & Mack Center.”
UNLV will play another neutral site game Saturday, Dec. 10 when it participates in the Las Vegas Clash from the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Washington State will await them with tip-off scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
Arizona will play Indiana in the other Las Vegas Clash matchup.
Senior guard Luis Rodriguez scored eight straight points late in the second half to push UNLV’s lead to 13 points with just over six minutes left in regulation. The first six points came on back-to-back three-pointers before a steal and slam dunk punctuated his scoring stretch.
“I seen one go in,” Rodriguez explained. “I just told myself, ‘If I’m open, shoot the ball.’ And I put the work in so I was just staying ready and staying confident.”
Rodriguez led the team in scoring, finishing with 18 points on 6-of-14 shooting including three made threes. He also tallied seven rebounds and two steals. He is averaging nearly 12 points this season, about four and a half points more than his highest previous average.
“To be perfectly honest, it’s the form,” Kruger said about recruiting Rodriguez. “It’s just the way he shoots it, they’re all the same. The way he sets the ball, the way he releases, the way it comes out of his hand, there’s just a consistency there that when we were watching him, we really felt like if he just had more reps and more looks at the hoop we felt he could be a good shooter.”
Having spent four years at Ole Miss, Rodriguez is relishing in his first and only season as a Rebel.
“There were a lot of reasons for me transferring,” he said. “It was to play a bigger role because I know I’m capable of playing both ends of the floor. Coach Kruger and the staff trusted me from the jump and told me what my role would be and how I can be helpful to the team. So I’m working hard to fulfill my end of the bargain.”
UNLV came away with a wire-to-wire victory, leading by as many as 21 points, but had to fend off several Hawaii runs.
“It’s easy to get hot in the second half just knowing what Hawaii was capable of and the run they made,” Kruger said. “I thought overall, the guys did what they’ve been doing. They did a great job of guarding people, creating a little bit of a cushion in the first half that ended up being the difference in the game.”
With 9:02 left in regulation, the Rainbow Warriors cut the once 20-plus point lead to single-digits for the first time since the 4:52-mark of the first half.
After Hawaii made an earlier run in the first half, UNLV used a 20-6 run to close the first half capped by a buzzer-beating reverse layup by fifth-year guard Jordan McCabe.
“I think we messed up a couple of switches defensively,” Rodriguez said. “And it led to them having some open shots so it’s just communication and we’ll clean it up throughout practice the rest of the week.”
Webster and sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert each added 13 points apiece with the latter connecting on three of his four three-point attempts.
“Just playing with confidence,” Webster said. “Not being afraid to shoot the basketball, the coaches telling me, ‘If I step in rhythm just knock it down.’ Just playing with a lot of confidence and catching a rhythm.” Webster is two years removed from being a member of the Rainbow Warriors but cherished this opportunity to play against his former squad.
“Last night and today, I couldn’t really sleep because I was so anxious getting to this game,” he said. “It’s great seeing those guys. It’s all love over there. They gave me my first opportunity to play collegiate basketball so nothing against them, it’s all love over there.”
Fifth-year guard EJ Harkless was the final Rebel player in double-figures with 10 points to go along with four rebounds.