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UNLV turns away North Dakota State with 64-62 home win

Even without scoring much, fifth-year transfer Royce Hamm Jr. found a way to put his fingerprints on UNLV’s 64-62 win over North Dakota State Monday, Nov. 15.


As the wing-defender, Hamm Jr. soared high for the game-winning block as time expired as the Runnin’ Rebels beat the Bison, 64-62, Monday, Nov. 15 from the Thomas & Mack Center.


“I knew that they were setting the high ball screen all night,” he said. “I just knew the timing and situation of the game so I just read the guard and seen he was coming down, full steam ahead, [...] so I was like ‘If I leave the shooter this time, I have to make sure I get it.’”


After the game, Hamm Jr. admitted it was his first walk-off block of his career.


“I saw Royce running and then I turned to watch the ball-handler,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “I was concerned he was going to stop and throw it out to [NDSU’s Rocky] Kreuser trailing. But he looked like he had his head down and maybe Royce noticed that.”


Hamm Jr. is in his first-year with UNLV after spending his first four with the University of Texas.


“It’s amazing to come here and just watch all the hard work you put in pay off,” he said. “Also to do it with a great group of guys and a great head coach -- great coaching staff overall. Those guys instill a lot of confidence in me and they believe in me and I believe in them.”


By the end of the night, Hamm Jr. tallied a game-high 17 rebounds to go along with three points and two blocks.


The win helped secure the best start for the men’s program, at 3-0, since starting 6-0 in 2017-18.


In addition, all of the Runnin’ Rebels first three games have all come down to the last possession.


“Coming from where we came from, we know what it's like in March,” junior forward Donovan Williams said. “So these three games have all felt like February-March type games for us. I think it’s not supposed to feel that way but we are a new group and we’re trying to put the pieces together and see what works best.”


Kruger was very candid about how the roles could be reversed for his team had it not been for its sustained play down-the-stretch of each.


“It’s huge for us going forward because we could very easily be 0-3,” he said. “And we’d be sitting around questioning everything we’ve been doing. And we’d be struggling to make sure the guys stay engaged.”


Next up for UNLV is a Roman Main Event matchup with the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines.


“Coaches say you know every game is important,” Williams said. “But you always have games, especially as a player, that you circle or mark off like this is a game we have to win. Every game is a must-win but some games are just a little bit more important.


“We know they’re a great team, we know the pieces they have and we know the pieces we have. So we’re not going in feeling like an underdog. We’re not going in looking to just hang around with these guys, we’re coming in [trying to win this game].”


That game will take place Friday, Nov. 19 from the T-Mobile Arena in the first “neutral” site game of the year for the Rebels. “I hate to say it but we’re going to do the same thing,” Kruger said. “We know they’re incredibly talented. They’re somebody that we kind of aspire to be. They’re in-sync, they understand each other, they play basketball the right way, they play together. And those are things we want to do so I’m sure when we start film tomorrow or the next day we’ll see a lot of the stuff we’re talking to our guys about, [Michigan does].”


It was another rough start, this time against NDSU, which could have doomed UNLV from the tipoff.


Through the first seven minutes of the ball game, the Rebels committed five turnovers while falling behind by as many as six points to the Bison.


From fumbling a gang rebound out of bounds to stepping on the end line on a lead pass, UNLV was shaky to start the game.


“It’s almost like we’ve played the same game,” Kruger said. “Being an older group, again, I don’t think runs bother them as much. Having played in a bunch of games before, runs are going to happen. We go on runs, they go on runs, it’s just part of the game -- it’s going to happen.”


However, over the last 13:01 of the first half, the Rebels did not commit another turnovers.


Moreover, the team only committed three in all of the second half.


So after committing five turnovers in the first seven minutes, UNLV went the last 33 minutes of the game with three turnovers.


“It was definitely a focal point,” Kruger said. “You’ve got Coach Hartman and Coach Buckley right there in that timeout making it known we’re turning it over way too much. We love this group and we feel that they’re all incredibly talented basketball players so if we give the ball to the other team, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”


After taking a five-point lead into halftime, the lead would grow to the largest of the game for the Rebels early in the second half at seven points.


North Dakota State wouldn’t go early as it would cut the deficit to a point on several occasions and even battled back to tie the game before taking the lead briefly.


It was during this time that UNLV had to rely on its defense to keep it in the game.


Hamm Jr. had a big block with the team up one before senior guard Marvin Coleman got a steal and threw the outlet pass to Williams for the thunderous dunk that got the TMC to its feet.


Williams, also known as “Stretch”, got another dunk moments later that was met with more roars from the home crowd.


“I told [guard Jordan McCabe], ‘I’ve been dreaming of a breakaway dunk in the Mack since June,” he said. “I go home and I just [dream] about getting dunks. Some people dream about getting steals, blocks, threes, whatever. I just dream about dunks and making plays.”


Even with the highlight reel plays on offense, Kruger pointed to the other end of the floor as to where Williams is always making a difference.


“Donovan is very disruptive defensively,” Kruger said. “That’s something you don’t always notice a lot unless you go back and watch because his length creates a lot of mishandled passes or off-target passes. And when he gets a free run, you all seen how athletic he can be.”


Williams finished with 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting and six hauled in six rebounds.


During that defensive stretch, guard Michael Nuga even had a big block on a drive that changed the course of the game.


For the third straight game, senior guard Bryce Hamilton played the role of closer, scoring 10 of his game-high 17 points in the second half.


“We knew that their guy couldn’t guard Bryce,” Hamm Jr. said. “We knew it was a matchup problem so we just tried to instill confidence and just said ‘Go make a play, we’ll play off you.’”


Additionally, he scored eight in the final five minutes of the game, prompting a question about whether Hamilton is better in the final five minutes.


“It definitely seems so -- in the first three games especially,” Kruger said. “I do think that his pace changed a little bit. So that’s on us to figure out how we get that for every minute he’s out there.”


Hamilton, who was the team’s leading scorer last season, scored or assisted on six straight baskets for the Rebels after the Nuga block.


He even dazzled the crowd with a spectacular up-and-under move that gave UNLV the lead for good.


“I’ve played with a lot of good scorers before and Bryce is definitely top-5 on that list for sure,” Williams said. “I said over summer that he can make shots that people will look at and say, ‘There’s no way that’s going in.’”

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