Stephen R. Sylvanie / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Friday, Nov. 11, 2016 | 9:55 p.m.
There were flashes of good play. Just not enough.
Most of the UNLV basketball team’s season opener tonight confirmed what was widely suspected about the Rebels entering the season: They are very much a work in progress.
UNLV kept the game close the entire second half against visiting South Alabama at the Thomas & Mack Center but struggled with inconsistent play to lose 76-68 in Marvin Menzies’ coaching debut.
It was their first season-opening loss in 12 years.
“They were hurting,” Menzies said of his players. “It was like they got eliminated from the Mountain West tournament. That’s a good sign. I know they are invested. They said the right things. They didn’t point fingers. They know they will be better.”
First the good: Christian Jones, a senior graduate transfer from St. John’s, was solid from start to finish in posting a game-high 20 points and 13 rebounds. He was arguably the best player on the court.
“I was getting good looks and my shots were falling,” said Jones, who made 10 of 14 shots, everything from midrange jumpers to attacking the baskets for easy points. “My teammates had confidence to keep coming back to me.”
Now the bad: The Rebels had 16 turnovers and just 12 assists, they surrendered 14 offensive rebounds, many of which led to 16 second-chance points, and missed 10 free throws. The Rebels had 23 more free-throw attempts than South Alabama, yet it trailed the final 30 minutes of the game.
“We are going to be much better going forward,” Menzies said. “If there is any consolation, we started at a place where we could only go up.”
Yet, for as inconsistent as they played, it was still a two possession game with less than two minutes remaining. While the Rebels had their struggles, none of that had to do with effort. For Menzies, that’s a clear step in the right direction.
“The way the guys were in the locker room, I was inspired for their pain,” Menzies said. “I felt it more.”
Tyrell Green hit a 3-pointer with 6:53 remaining to trim the UNLV deficit to 57-55, but the Rebels couldn’t get closer. Each time they cut into the deficit, South Alabama responded.
“It seemed like every time we made a run they would hit a 3,” Menzies said. “I was like, ‘Seriously. This is my first game.’”
Kris Clyburn, who is expected to be one of UNLV’s leading scorers, was limited with a knee injury. He was second on the team with 13 points, but made just 3 of 12 field goal attempts. Jalen Poyser and Jovan Mooring, the Rebels’ primary two ballhandlers, each had four turnovers. Offensive possessions, at times, involved players standing around.
“It was our first game. Everybody had jitters,” Clyburn said. “Once the game started, we should have played the way we know how to.”
UNLV returns to practice Saturday. Its next game is Wednesday against visiting UC Riverside.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” Menzies said. “... I know we can play better than we played.”