Monday, Nov. 16, 2015 | 11 p.m.
It starts with a burst of energy, a flashpoint from which the rush bursts forth and infects everyone who crosses its path. That’s what happened to two Rebels tonight, one whose impact was belied by a pedestrian stat line and another whose highlight will be the only thing most people across the country ever know about this game.
The Rebels defeated New Mexico Highlands 107-45 tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center, a score that matters only because this is basketball and every game ends with one score or another. Highlands is a Division II team from Las Vegas, New Mexico, and since the outcome was determined as soon as the game was scheduled the question was how the Rebels would win, not if.
The answer was with a jump-start from sophomore Dwayne Morgan, who entered the game with 12:04 left in the first half. UNLV (2-0) led by only three and an announced crowd of 9,961 was as listless as the Rebels until Morgan’s presence helped spark a 47-4 run into halftime.
“Dwayne Morgan on the ball in the press is what changed the dynamic in the game,” said coach Dave Rice.
Morgan took over as the madman guarding the opposing inbounder and his harassment allowed UNLV to dial up the backcourt pressure. Morgan scored just two points and played only 13 minutes, in part because he fouled out, yet the Rebels don’t go on a 28-0 and score 60 in the first half without his injection of life.
“The start of our runs was really when Dwayne really got into the press and started making some plays,” said junior forward Ben Carter. “I think that really set the tone for us defensively.”
Morgan’s performance is probably the singular most important thing the Rebels got from this game. What everyone else got was the first of many Derrick Jones Jr. dunks to send a shockwave through the Mack that reverberated across the country.
A little more than five minutes into the second half, Jones took an outlet pass at the timeline on UNLV’s half of the court. Two dribbles later he was high above the crowd — Jones’ chin was level with the rim — and emphatically finished a one-handed dunk with his left.
“Freak of nature,” said senior guard Ike Nwamu.
By the time the game was over the highlight was already posted on most national sports sites, including some with headlines calling it an “unbelievable” play. Only if you haven’t seen Jones before.
“We’re kind of starting to get used to it,” Carter said.
Jones and fellow freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. combined for at least six dunks, but that one from Jones was the unquestioned champ. It figures to be one of many SportsCenter appearances for him this season.
“It pry won’t be the last time he makes a highlight play,” Rice said.
Six Rebels scored in double figures, led by freshman Jalen Poyser’s 16, thanks to 4-of-4 3-point shooting. Zimmerman notched his first career double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Jones (14 points), Nwamu (12), Jerome Seagears (12) and Pat McCaw (11) all helped UNLV eclipse 100 points for the second time in the last three-plus seasons.
The Rebels forced 27 turnovers while committing only 14 of their own, and other than a 14-of-23 performance at the free-throw line, there’s nothing the team could really be disappointed in. Even before the game started they notched a team chemistry win when sophomore Goodluck Okonoboh approached Rice about coming off the bench.
“It was entirely his idea,” Rice said. “He said he felt like he would have a better feel for the game if he came off the bench.”
With how much UNLV substitutes, starting mostly matters only if the player really cares about it. Okonoboh played 22 minutes compared to Carter’s 19 and barring foul trouble they will be in the same range each night, but it’s still a positive sign that Okonoboh, a two-year starter, offered to change his role.
From the coaches’ perspective, lineup flexibility is an asset they’re enjoying this season. It doesn’t matter whether the jolt comes from the bench like it did tonight or from one of the starters because UNLV thinks it’s deep enough to get that push every night.
“That’s what makes us a very dangerous team,” Rice said.
Junior Tyrell Green could redshirt
Junior college transfer Tyrell Green didn’t play in tonight’s game, and Rice said the staff is considering redshirting him. No final decision has been made.
Green played two seasons at Hill College in Texas, hitting 47.5 percent on 3-pointers last year as a sophomore. He picked UNLV over Colorado State.