Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017 | 1:16 a.m.
Any lingering questions about the legitimacy of UNLV’s undefeated record were answered on Wednesday, when the Rebels routed a good Utah team, 85-58, in the championship game of the MGM Main Event at T-Mobile Arena.
Utah came into the contest 4-0 and ranked No. 43 in the KenPom.com ratings, which was about 200 spots higher than any of UNLV’s previous opponents. But Utah’s qualifications didn’t matter — UNLV treated the Utes the same way they treated the likes of Florida A&M or Prairie View, dunking on them and hounding them on defense and generally overpowering them for 40 minutes.
Now, UNLV is 5-0 and looking like a real contender in the Mountain West.
Freshman center Brandon McCoy finished with another outrageous stat line, posting a career-high 26 points and 17 rebounds in 27 minutes, but it was what the Rebels did without McCoy on the court that propelled them to the program’s best victory in almost two full years.
McCoy picked up his second foul with 7:03 left in the half and had to sub out with UNLV holding tightly to a 24-21 lead. He was joined on the bench by his frontcourt partner Shakur Juiston, who was also sidelined with two fouls. Because so much of UNLV’s game plan is built around the two bruising big men, it seemed likely that the Rebels would struggle to close out the half.
Without his beloved bigs on the floor, UNLV coach Marvin Menzies actually turned to his smallest player, 5-foot-9 point guard Jordan Johnson, to steady the team.
“Jordan and I talked,” Menzies said, “and I said ‘Alright, we’ve got to sit these guys for the rest of the half, so it’s your time.’”
On the fly, the Rebels went to a slow-paced offensive set for the final seven minutes of the half, with Johnson dribbling out the shot clock on each possession before penetrating and making a play late.
The wonky scheme worked, as Johnson posted a team-high 12 points in the first half to help UNLV take a 43-33 lead into the break.
“We drew up a play we’ve actually never run before,” Menzies said. “We didn’t know we were going to be in that situation … We had the two young fellas out there in Cheickna [Dembele] and Mbacke [Diong], so I said let’s get those guys a dunk. Let’s go 1-4 flat … And we ran that play about four times in a row or something like that to end the half. We just let the time go down to about 10 or 12 before we ran it and that was basically what we did. But I had a point guard that could do it.”
Johnson played all 20 minutes in the first half, and with McCoy and Juiston on the bench for the final 7:03, the Johnson-led Rebels actually outscored Utah, 19-12.
When the Rebels came out of the locker room for the second half with their full complement of players, Utah didn’t stand a chance.
Johnson and McCoy combined to score UNLV’s first eight points after the break, all coming on dunks and layups, to push the lead to 51-35. Then senior guard Jovan Mooring took over, scoring nine straight points for the Rebels with a grab-bag of floaters, pull-up 3-pointers and running bank shots. Mooring’s streak extended the lead to 63-39 with 12:46 remaining, and the rout was on.
UNLV’s defense clamped down with McCoy and Juiston back on the court in the second half, limiting Utah to 11-of-33 from the field (33.3 percent), and the margin ballooned as high as 29 points on two occasions before Menzies subbed out his stars in the final minutes.
Johnson finished with 20 points and six assists, while Mooring scored 19. Juiston had his least productive game statistically, with just four points and three rebounds, but Menzies singled him out in his post-game remarks as the key to UNLV’s stingy defensive effort.
Despite limited minutes for McCoy and Juiston, UNLV still dominated Utah on the interior, building a 46-30 rebounding advantage and outscoring the Utes 20-6 on second-chance points.
For the game, UNLV shot 50 percent from the field (31-of-62) while limiting Utah to just 21 made field goals (21-of-60). It was as dominant a performance as UNLV has put on in a long time, and after making a quality Pac-12 team look like a cupcake, Menzies was hopeful that his team’s statement win will get people excited about UNLV basketball again.
“We’ll see how it goes, but I’m imploring the fans to come out every time I get a chance,” Menzies said, “because I do think the city has a special product in these young men. I’m hopeful and optimistic they’ll come out and see it. You know, everybody loves a winner, man. So we’ve just got to keep winning.”
Given the way UNLV looked in its first true test of the season, it seems the Rebels are going to do a lot of winning between now and March.