Kris Clyburn clicks in as UNLV cruises past Eastern Washington

Rebels execute game plan after slow start to improve to 3-0 on the season

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas News Bureau

UNLV guard Kris Clyburn drives to the basket against Eastern Washington during their game Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 91-76.

Rebels overwhelm E. Washington

UNLV Rebels guard Jordan Johnson (24) dishes off a pass under the basket during their game against the Eastern Washington Eagles Friday, November 17, 2017, at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 91-76. CREDIT: Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau Launch slideshow »

When a team wins its first two games by a combined 77 points, its coach can be hard-pressed to find any major causes for concern.

UNLV coach Marvin Menzies had one issue he labeled as “critical,” though. It was the play of Kris Clyburn, the only Rebels’ starter not to excel in blowouts over Florida A&M and Prairie View A&M over the last week.

“He and I have been communicating a little more frequently just to get his head right because his game is so mental,” Menzies said. “I think he just needed to know I had his back and had a lot of confidence in him.”

Armed with Menzies’ reassurance, Clyburn busted out of his mini-funk in the Rebels’ third game Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. Clyburn brought defensive energy and a nearly flawless offensive night in a 91-76 victory over Eastern Washington.

Clyburn hit seven of his eight shots from the field, including going three of four on three-point attempts, to score a career-high 19 points.

“I talked with all the coaching staff and they were just telling me, ‘Stay confident, it’s a long process,’” Clyburn said. “I had two bad games, but it was about getting focused and staying confident at all times.”

Menzies specifically emphasized that Clyburn should focus on defense and rebounding until offense came to him, and that’s what he did against the Eagles. Eastern Washington had controlled most of the first half and led 31-26 when Clyburn checked back in.

It was then that the Rebels bore down on defense and chased the Eagles off the three-point line. After Eastern Washington made two of its first three three-point shots — trying to replicate the formula that led to an upset victory over Stanford on Tuesday — it didn’t convert on another one for 29 minutes of game time.

Clyburn knocked down two three-pointers of his own during a 19-8 run in the final six minutes of the first half where UNLV pulled away, and assisted on one from freshman Amauri Hardy that beat the buzzer. The Rebels picked up where they left off after halftime, turning a six-point lead into a 13-point lead in five minutes.

“It was just stopping their penetration,” Clyburn said. “First half, they were getting a lot of easy layups so we just focused on making them take tough 2s.”

On the other end, UNLV fattened up on easy 2s. Freshman Brandon McCoy was unstoppable for the third straight game, putting up 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting to go with eight rebounds.

McCoy’s main partner in crime from the first two games, junior Shakur Juiston, had just as many point-blank looks but didn’t finish as smoothly. There was one two-minute stretch where Juiston missed three layups.

But, like Clyburn, he focused on something else instead of letting the ineffectiveness frustrate him. Juiston limited the Eagles’ second-chance opportunities by battling for 18 rebounds and kept the Rebels’ offense in sync with six assists.

The scoring eventually came too, as he finished with 13 points.

“I need to work on that, getting my touches better around the basket,” Juiston said. “But I just told myself, ‘Don’t stop taking those shots.’”

Senior Jovan Mooring was as assertive as usual, putting up 15 points including getting to the foul line three times where he made five of six free throws. The only Rebel to never find his rhythm while the game was competitive was senior point guard Jordan Johnson, who played a season-low 22 minutes before fouling out late.

“Jordan is a feisty little guy and he was a little upset but it ain’t about Jordan,” Menzies said. “It’s about the team. It’s about the Rebels, about the Runnin’ Rebels, so we need to understand that not everybody is going to have a great game every game. That goes back to the luxury of having 11 guys. I have 11 sons that are playing right now. I don’t care which son has a bad game as long as the rest of the sons bring a W home to the university, to the community, to the athletic department.”

If Menzies has his way, and if Clyburn’s performance against Eastern Washington is any indication, then resilience will be a characteristic of this year’s Rebels. Clyburn even turned arguably his only negative moment of Friday night into a positive.

Early in the second half, he committed a turnover but sprinted down to poke the ball back out of the hands of Eastern Washington’s Sir Washington. The steal turned into a transition dunk for Clyburn to put UNLV ahead by double digits for the first time.

“It was just staying confident, letting the game come to me,” Clyburn said.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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