Eli Lucero / Herald Journal via AP
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016 | 10:35 p.m.
Identity means a lot to Todd Simon. Raised in Michigan without much of a playing background, Simon worked his way into coaching with an aggressive mentality that showed up in the teams he helped lead at Findlay Prep.
Now that he has this opportunity as UNLV’s interim coach, Simon is making sure that at the very least these Rebels know who they are. And while it won’t always look this good, that’s what the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum crowd saw during a 21-2 run to open the second half that effectively won the game at Utah State.
“That’s the identity of our program,” Simon said. “We’re going to defend, rebound and run. The guys have that ingrained. That’s who we are.”
Over the first 6 minutes and 44 seconds of the second half, UNLV (12-7, 3-3) flipped a one-point deficit into an 18-point lead that rarely got under double digits en route to an 80-68 victory against the Aggies (11-7, 3-4). The Rebels have now scored at least 80 points in three straight games, something they had done four times against Division I competition this year under Dave Rice.
“We went through a little slump but we back,” said freshman Derrick Jones Jr., who led the team with 21 points after scoring 22 on Saturday.
The Rebels planned to take full advantage of their size advantage from the start, with everything going toward the basket and sophomore Dwayne Morgan and freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. playing a little high-low game. Zimmerman cleaned up nearly everything around him while setting a new career-high in rebounds (16) and tying his top mark in blocks (four) plus 12 points.
“Our main focus every game is to hammer it down in the post, but games like this that’s really the main focus,” said Morgan, who had a season-high 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting. “If it’s not broke, why fix it?”
The Rebels were good in the first half. The rest of the way they were mostly great, including some of the best offensive ball movement all season.
“There’s no coincidence you shoot 61 percent when you play that way, especially with the talent we have and giving guys space,” Simon said.
Utah State took its halftime lead mostly on backdoor cuts and hitting mid-range jumpers that are hard to count on. Once the Rebels cleaned up their weak-side defense to prevent a lot of those cuts, the Aggies continued to settle and could only get as close as eight down the stretch.
Utah State started the second half with four straight turnovers, and once that fed UNLV’s beast there was no slowing it down. The Rebels led fast-break points 23-2 and points in the paint 46-28, both of which they would point to as a result of a suffocating defense that held the Aggies to 39.1 percent from the field.
“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” Jones said, “and that’s what we did.”
Guards Jerome Seagears and Jordan Cornish each continued their resurgences with a combined 22 points on nine shots while Pat McCaw had a balanced effort with four points, four steals, three rebounds, two blocks and six assists to four turnovers.
Simon didn’t like much of the first half but by the end of the game the only things he could really critique were the 16 turnovers. UNLV mixed up its pressure with some delayed backcourt traps and pretty much everything they tried stymied the Aggies in one way or another.
“The second half I loved we came out a little angry, a little foaming at the mouth and picked that pressure back up,” Simon said. “That’s how we’re going to play.”
Even the back-cuts the Rebels were giving up were OK in Simon’s eyes, because with the increased pressure he has brought back to the team comes increased risk. Something’s got to give, so the focus is on limiting those looks while understanding that sometimes it’s going to happen.
UNLV played great in interim coach Todd Simon's first two games, and if that continues on the road this week the Rebels (11-7, 2-3) could really be in business. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern discuss what this UNLV team could do now that the pressure is off.
“We’re going to get back-cut because we’re such a denial, pressure team now,” Simon said. “… If the guys are off by one foot you’re doing it wrong.”
That’s a small margin of error, but it’s what’s expected these days. This coaching staff and players have answered every challenge since Rice was removed from the job, and doing it away from home only adds to their confidence heading into another road game on Saturday at UNR.
The Rebels know who they are. Soon, they believe, the rest of the Mountain West will, too.
Associate head coach Stacey Augmon has apparently moved past any issues he felt in the wake of UNLV’s coaching change. The fifth-year assistant, who wasn’t made available after the game, sent a tweet on Monday that read, “Coaching unlv matters I will talk soon” and attached a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the quote, “Our lives begin to end THE DAY we become SILENT about things that MATTER.”
It certainly didn’t suggest that everyone on staff was on the same page, but after the victory Simon said it wasn’t an issue.
“Coaching matters to us at UNLV, I agree,” Simon said. “He’s passionate, and he’s doing a helluva job. That’s the only thing that really matters. Obviously, whatever it was it was, but as long as we’re all in it right now and working together, we’re all passionate for UNLV and coaching this team.”
After the game, Augmon sent out the following about the defense he coordinates: "So proud of our young Rebels, team defense is top in the country."
And the Rebels were without one player as junior guard Daquan Cook remained in Las Vegas. Simon said Cook was ill and hadn't practiced in the past two days, so team trainer Dave Tomchek determined it would be best for Cook to not make the trip.
Since returning from a 13-game suspension for a DUI arrest, Cook has played a total of four minutes and missed the entirety of four games.