Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Ray Brewer, Mike Grimala and Case Keefer dip in both football and basketball off of UNLV's best week of the year. The Rebels are rolling in basketball going into a potentially massive showdown with Cincinnati, and enlivened by upsetting UNR to win back the Fremont Cannon in football.
Midway through the second half of UNLV’s win over Pacific last week, a loose ball rolled out toward the sideline, with one Rebel and two Pacific players in pursuit. UNLV freshman Joel Ntambwe beat his opponents to the floor and dove headfirst for the ball — which he corralled before calling timeout.
With the possession saved, UNLV came out after the stoppage and converted when Shakur Juiston hit a short jumper to extend UNLV’s lead. That bucket made the score 79-54 in favor of the Rebels.
Was Ntambwe’s play necessary to win the game? Probably not in that instance. But it was emblematic of the attitude and energy he has brought to the starting lineup in the opening weeks of the season.
Ntambwe, a native of the Congo who played four years of high school basketball in the United States, is all about making life miserable for his opponents. At 6-foot-8, he brings length to the small forward position, and his grind-it-out approach has endeared him to his coaches and teammates.
He may only be averaging 4.6 points per game, but when Ntambwe is on the court he makes it a point to play as hard as possible on the defensive end — and whenever a ball is up for grabs.
“It’s really important to me because a lot of people want to play offense, but it’s not really my thing,” Ntambwe said. “I mean, I can do everything, but coach Menzies asks me to play defense and bring energy on the team. I think that’s a great thing and I love doing that, so I’m going to stick with it.”
In the second half of UNLV’s win over Oakland on Nov. 16, Ntambwe was blocked at the rim. In the ensuing battle for the loose ball, Ntambwe became entangled with an Oakland player. The referee called a held ball, but both players continued to clutch and pull at the ball after the whistle was blown. Ntmabwe eventually ripped the ball away, causing a scuffle on the court. Teammate Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua was so agitated that he drew a technical foul.
The score at the time was UNLV 61, Oakland 43.
The tech was obviously not the desired outcome, but Ntambwe definitely has a way of getting his teammates fired up.
Fifth-year senior point guard Noah Robotham has been around the block and is widely cited as a level-headed player, on and off the court. He understands the value that Ntambwe provides by raising the energy level on the court at the start of games.
“I think he’s doing a good job of bringing that energy consistently,” Robotham said. “He’s 6-foot-8, he’s a big defender and he does a good job. He runs the floor hard. He has a lot of room to grow, but for what we’re trying to put out there to start off the game and be a team that is emphasizing energy early on, he fits that mold perfectly.”
Menzies said it’s important for UNLV to exude that energy level and set a frenzied tone from the opening tipoff, and that’s why he has penciled Ntambwe into the starting lineup for the first five games of the season.
“His energy, and his effort, his length,” Menzies said. “He’s gotten his hands on some balls that haven’t necessarily come up as a rebound, but he kept it alive a few times. He’s done some things like diving on the floor in the last game. I think he speaks to how hard I want Runnin’ Rebels to play.”
Ntambwe takes pride in his ability to chase down — and win — loose balls. The next time an errant pass or a deflected rebound starts rolling along the floor, expect him to give chase and attack with 100 percent intensity.
“It’s to show the fans how hard I can go and how hard we need to go to win every single game,” Ntambwe said. “Those 50/50 balls really matter at the end of the day, so I’ll go for it because I know those are big plays.”