Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014 | 9:45 p.m.
When it comes to blocks, Goodluck Okonoboh shrugs his shoulders. Sure, 13 total blocks in his first two collegiate games might seem like a lot, because it is, but that’s always been in his arsenal.
“It’s just what I do,” Okonoboh said.
When it comes to the bigger picture of what it takes to be successful at the Division I level, though, the freshman forward from Boston understands how far he and the Rebels have to go. In the short term, that distance comes out to roughly 2,500 miles on a cross-country flight to New York City, where the Rebels will arrive 2-0 after again pulling out a narrow victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“These two wins are awesome, but they’re over with, they’re erased,” Okonoboh said after UNLV held on 59-57 against Sam Houston State. “We have to go to Brooklyn with a new mindset.”
That mentality must be one focused on rebounding and making free throws because those were the two biggest issues out of the Rebels’ opening weekend. Between the two games, they were outrebounded on the offensive glass 38-21 and made only 51.9 percent of their free-throw attempts.
Both of these games, won by a combined 3 points, could have been more comfortable if UNLV sank some of those shots at the stripe, considering they attempted more in each game (27) than Morehead State and Sam Houston State combined (24). The whistles aren’t likely to be that friendly at the Barclays Center on Friday night when UNLV steps up its competition against Stanford (2-0).
“I’m smart enough to say we’re going to shoot some more free throws,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
The Rebels’ shots from the field weren’t that great either. UNLV hit a solid 38.5 percent on 3-point attempts but just 36.8 from the field overall. Freshman Rashad Vaughn led the team in scoring with 18 points on 19 attempts in front of a late-arriving crowd of 10,902 that had to fight marathon traffic.
Once again, UNLV trailed at halftime and the Bearkats’ lead got up to 11 — the same as Morehead State — before the Rebels were able to counterpunch and eventually take the lead for good with 6:24 remaining.
The two games were strikingly similar, from the rally to the final score and the way UNLV was finally able to pull it out.
Cody Doolin was assertive from the start after taking only one shot in the first game, but it was his second-half assists that again keyed the rally. In the final five minutes, Doolin found Vaughn for a huge 3-pointer, and a couple of possessions later it was a pass to Patrick McCaw, who put the Rebels up by 8 with a 3-pointer from the corner.
Those shots were so important because UNLV’s defense put up another solid performance, using a lot of 1-2-2 zone to hold the Bearkats to 30.4 percent shooting from the field.
“Defensively, we absolutely shut them down,” said Doolin, who had 10 points, seven assists and three steals in 39 minutes.
If not for the offensive rebounds, that shooting percentage wouldn’t have kept Sam Houston State in it. Part of that is a result of the zone. Its success has meant more misses, and thus more opportunities for offensive rebounds, and as a defender in the zone, it’s also more difficult to rebound in a zone because the man you need to box out often isn’t right next to you.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to get rebounds,” said Okonoboh, who led the team with 10. “I think we’re going to have to learn to put a body on somebody.”
The bigs did their job in that category, with Okonoboh, Dwayne Morgan and Christian Wood combining for 24 of UNLV’s 39. Most nights it will be the guards who need to help out by grabbing every 50/50 ball, something Rice knew would be key this season to help make up for the loss of Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith.
UNLV has five days before the Stanford game and six before what the Rebels hope is their first meeting with Duke since 1991. UNLV and No. 4 Duke need to have the same outcomes, win or loss, on Friday to meet on Saturday.
That’s not something UNLV can worry about, though. Morehead State and Sam Houston State are certainly good teams, but the Rebels’ much-discussed nonconference slate only gets more difficult from here. It’s going to take much better execution to win against Stanford, Duke or Temple this week.
Practice will be focused on those shortcomings so they’re better by the time UNLV steps on the plane Wednesday. But after a second straight victory that easily could have been a loss, there are a couple things the Rebels know they already have.
“One thing you can’t question is our heart and our camaraderie,” Rice said.
So far those characteristics seem to come as easily as Okonoboh’s blocks. That factor doesn’t need to be overstated, but it’s not nothing.