Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 | 12:48 a.m.
Basketball isn’t always pretty, and no one knows that better than Jovan Mooring.
On Saturday, UNLV’s senior guard put his PhD in physicality to use, scoring 27 hard-earned points against a tough Illinois defense to lead the Rebels to an 89-82 win at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
It was the definition of a grind-it-out type of game as the Rebels marched to the free-throw line for 48 attempts, with Mooring setting the tone. His relentless drives into heavy traffic resulted in 18 free throws (and about as many bruises) and kept the UNLV offense above water while they tried to solve Illinois’ zone scheme.
In the end, Mooring stuck a pair of 3-pointers in the closing minutes to turn out the lights.
Mooring said the plan was to attack Illinois’ aggressive defense, which came into the game ranked eighth nationally in forcing turnovers.
“We knew how hard they play defensively,” Mooring said. “They’re probably the best defensive team we’ve seen so far and we knew they were going to get out and pressure the ball. It was the guards’ job to keep as much pressure on the defense as possible, and that was by attacking.”
UNLV took a 45-36 lead into halftime, but Illinois went on a 14-2 run early in the second half to take a 50-49 advantage.
The teams traded the lead for the next 10 minutes, staying within a single possession either way until a Jordan Johnson pull-up 3-pointer gave UNLV a 71-65 edge with 4:34 to play.
Illinois guard Mark Smith hit back-to-back 3-pointers (sandwiched around a pair of Johnson free throws) to pull the Illini within 73-71 with three minutes to play. Then Mooring isolated on the right wing and hit a long 3 to push the lead back to five points.
That touched off a 7-0 spurt for the Rebels until Illinois forward Michael Finke hit a 3-pointer to cut UNLV’s lead to 80-74 with two minutes remaining.
Mooring finished things off on the ensuing possession. After bleeding the clock, he dribbled around a high screen and pulled up from the top of the key. The shot was true, and Mooring’s dagger secured what could end up being a very important win.
Illinois came into the game ranked No. 95 in the KenPom.com ratings, making this UNLV’s last opportunity to add another quality non-conference win before opening Mountain West play.
Mooring said the team understood how vital it was to come away with a victory on Saturday, and he was willing to put his body on the line to get it.
“This is one we knew we had to get, and if we didn’t get it, it would hurt,” Mooring said. “So it was just about grinding it out and doing whatever it took to get the win.”
Brandon McCoy also thrived under the physical conditions, as the freshman big man battled through contact to notch 22 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in 36 tough minutes. He made 9-of-11 shots from the field and played a solid defensive game despite not always being flanked by his usual partner down low, junior forward Shakur Juiston.
Juiston was in foul trouble throughout the first half and picked up his fourth personal early in the second half, sending him to the bench. He returned at the 8:36 mark and played the rest of the way, helping UNLV outscore Illinois 29-21 during that span.
Juiston finished with 10 points and five rebounds and recorded a team-best plus/minus rating of plus-9 in 23 minutes.
Smith led Illinois with 17 points, while guard Trent Frazier finished with 16.
UNLV is now 8-2 on the season, and after going through such a physical contest, the Rebels will have six days to recover before playing their next game (Dec. 16 at Pacific).