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Jordan Johnson leads UNLV past Southern Utah in ‘winning time’

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV’s guard Jordan Johnson (24) is hoping a no-look shot off of a foul counts during their game versus Prairie View A&M at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV vs Southern Utah University

UNLV Rebels forward Shakur Juiston (10) and Southern Utah Thunderbirds forward Christian Musoko (34) fight for a loose ball during their game Saturday, November 25, 2017, at the Tomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. UNLV won the game 101-82. CREDIT: Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau Launch slideshow »

UNLV coach Marvin Menzies regularly preaches the concept of “winning time,” which he defines as the final four minutes of a close game. He speaks of it often, and drills into his players the importance of making the right play during those moments when the game is on the line. Offense, defense, ball control, decision-making, poise, shot selection—everything factors into winning time, and the Rebels practice it.

Until Saturday, they hadn’t actually had to play a game that came down to winning time—all five of UNLV’s wins had been of the blowout variety—but Southern Utah gave the Rebels everything they could handle. In the end, UNLV made enough winning plays and eventually pulled away for a 101-82 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The star of winning time was senior point guard Jordan Johnson, who elevated his game precisely when the Rebels needed it most. He finished with 24 points and 14 assists (both game highs), and it seemed like every time UNLV needed a key play down the stretch, Johnson was there to make it.

Southern Utah did a commendable job of hanging around, using strong interior play and good rebounding to lurk within striking distance for most of the first half. And when it looked like UNLV was separating in the second half, the Thunderbirds went on a 22-7 run to cut the deficit to 74-72 with 7:12 remaining.

A little early for winning time, by its strictest dictionary definition. But that’s when Johnson, sensing that his team needed a push, kicked it into high gear. From that point on, he scored 12 points, handed out four assists and didn’t commit a single turnover. Of UNLV’s final 27 points, he scored or assisted on 21 without missing a single shot (3-of-3 field goals, 1-of-1 from 3-point range, 5-of-5 from the free-throw line).

“I was just thinking, ‘Get the win,’” Johnson said. “Like coach Marvin says, the last four minutes of the game is winning time. You’ve got to make free throws, make perfect passes, no turnovers, just win the game.”

Among Johnson’s highlights were a sweet alley-oop pass to Shakur Juiston for a dunk, a drive-and-drop pass to Juiston for another dunk, and a dagger 3-pointer that saw the 5-foot-9 floor general step back into the corner before calmly drilling the shot to give UNLV a 97-81 lead with two minutes to play.

Johnson’s heroics masked some earlier struggles for the Rebels, who were unable to put away a Southern Utah team that came into the game ranked a lowly 329th in the KenPom.com ratings.

Jamal Aytes, a former Rebel who played half of a season under Dave Rice in 2013, was a load in the paint, as he bulldozed his way to 19 points and 10 rebounds. And guard Jadon Cohee consistently penetrated the UNLV defense to rack up 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

It seemed every time UNLV tried to pull away, the Rebels would allow an offensive rebound, or commit a turnover, or miss a pair of free throws, and the opportunistic Southern Utah squad kept hanging around.

But Johnson’s virtuoso closing stretch, flanked by Juiston (22 points, 16 rebounds) and Brandon McCoy (15 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks), was enough to slam the door and improve the Rebels’ record to 6-0.

After the game, Menzies said he thought the tightness of the game took a toll on the players, who hadn’t been in a situation like that yet this season. But the end result was a hard-fought win that Menzies believes will make the team stronger in the long run.

“I sensed that it pulled them together a little bit, because I don’t think they were really together at certain points in that game,” Menzies said. “They got a little chippy with each other. I think they were a little short, a little quick to bite back at a guy when he was just giving them his observation—which I hadn’t seen before. But when push came to shove I thought it made them bond a little bit.”

Next, UNLV will head out on the road for the first time this season to take on a tough Northern Iowa team on Wednesday. If they Rebels want to win that one, they’ll probably

Notes

One player who didn’t survive winning time was senior guard Jovan Mooring. Usually one of the Rebels’ most clutch performers, Mooring sat out the final 7:12 while UNLV made its winning push.

With 7:40 remaining and UNLV nursing a 74-69 lead, Mooring fired up (and missed) a heat-check 3-pointer from well beyond the 3-point line, and he was subbed out at the next stoppage for junior swingman Anthony Smith.

After the game, Menzies said it was a coach’s decision but didn’t elaborate on the reason for Mooring’s benching. Instead, the coach said he didn’t want to break up the momentum once UNLV began its final run.

“I just decided not to play him the last few minutes,” Menzies said. “Look, Jovan is about winning games. If we find a group of players that are on a roll…it was working in our favor. We don’t have egos on this team. At least I hope we don’t. I hope they all understand. He seemed to be fine. I don’t know. We’re going to coach these games to win games.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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