Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018 | 10:17 p.m.
Mike Grimala and Case Keefer analyze the optimism stemming from the UNLV basketball team's two-game win streak before turning to football and the Rebels' attempt to win back the Fremont Cannon.
After UNLV turned in its best showing of the young season in a 96-70 blowout of Pacific on Tuesday, the question for the young, developing Rebels is clear: How much of that impressive performance was real, and is it something this team is capable of doing every game?
Some of it — like the Rebels’ 11-of-27 shooting from 3-point range — will be hard to duplicate on a consistent basis. But other aspects of the win — like the stingy team defense and dominant post offense — can probably become permanent pillars of the UNLV blueprint going forward. And that’s a very good sign for a team that has improved with each contest and now barely resembles the squad that lost to Loyola Marymount on opening night less than two weeks ago.
The Rebels (3-1) used uncharacteristically hot shooting to stick with Pacific in the early going, and then the defense took over. After Pacific opened the game by making 7-of-11 from the field, the Tigers were held to 4-of-14 for the rest of the half, and a late 17-1 run by UNLV powered the Rebels to a 49-32 lead at the break.
UNLV buried 6-of-13 from 3-point range over the first 20 minutes, a far cry from the team’s 13-of-50 accuracy through the first three games of the season. Power forward Shakur Juiston surprisingly led the charge; after making just two 3-pointers all of last season, the senior buried 2-of-3 from deep in the first half.
The Rebels continued to play tight defense in the second half, and the 3-point barrage continued to the tune of 5-of-14 from deep. Four different UNLV players made 3-pointers, and five finished in double figures, led by Kris Clyburn’s 17 points.
Head coach Marvin Menzies praised his team’s offensive output, but seemed to put more stock in the way the Rebels defended for 40 minutes.
“Obviously a really good effort on both sides of the ball tonight, which is good to see,” Menzies said. “Always nice to give the fans what they want, which is a nice offensive performance, but we’re keeping our vision on that defensive side of the ball and I was really pleased … with the way we took pride in defending the ball.”
UNLV held Pacific without a field goal for 4:49 late in the first half, then forced the Tigers into separate scoreless droughts of 3:31 and 3:06 in the second half while pulling away.
Mbacke Diong was the centerpiece of the defensive effort, as the sophomore finished with seven rebounds and two steals while helping to limit Pacific to 28 points in the paint. Diong also scored 16 points on 7-of-7 shooting and recorded a plus/minus rating of plus-27 in his 28 minutes.
With the way Diong has been defending in the post through four games, it seems safe to say the Rebels’ interior defense will be a consistent strength. Juiston’s outside shooting (3-of-4 from 3-point range) may not be as reliable, but the senior forward believes he can keep making them if the defense leaves him open.
“I don’t go into the game determining what I’m going to do, it’s just what the defense gives me,” Juiston said. “They weren’t closing out, so I just had faith in it. I didn’t hesitate, I just shot it and prayed to god and it went in.”
Juiston finished with 13 points and four assists. Amauri Hardy (13 points, five assists) and Noah Robotham (11 points, six assists) combined to give UNLV good production from the point guard position.
The Rebels may not always be able to count on shooting the ball at such a scorching rate (62.1 percent for the game) as they did against Pacific, but Menzies believes the improving defense is a foundation upon which his team can build.
“All our defensive showings have been good, but they still have no clue how good they can be,” Menzies said. “We’re getting them there. I’m convinced they will be a much better team at the end of the season than they are now.”