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Rebels get defensive late in win over Air Force

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels forward Cheikh Mbacke Diong (34) grabs an offensive rebound during a game against UC Riverside at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.

The Rebel Room

Junk defenses

The Rebels have lost four of their last five games, but it's a mostly positive version of the Rebel Room on this episode. Mike Grimala, Ray Brewer and Case Keefer discuss Marvin Menzies' decision to switch back exclusively to a man-to-man defense and how long of a run is realistic to expect UNLV to make in the conference tournament.

It took 79 minutes and 30 seconds, but UNLV finally got a defensive stop against Air Force.

In fact, the Rebels got two stops, locking down Air Force on the Falcons’ final two possessions to close out a 77-72 win that head coach Marvin Menzies called “payback.”

The Rebels infamously allowed AFA to ring up 106 points in their first meeting of the season on Jan. 16. With that blowout loss serving as motivation, UNLV dug down and finished Tuesday’s rematch on a 6-0 run to clinch the victory.

After Noah Robotham swished two free throws to give UNLV a 73-72 lead with 29 seconds to play, the Rebels swarmed AFA guard A.J. Walker on a drive down the middle and forced him to attempt a tough in-between layup. The shot missed, and UNLV forward Nick Blair jumped above the traffic to snag the defensive rebound.

Blair was fouled and made both of his free throws to extend UNLV’s lead to 75-72 with 14 seconds left. On Air Force’s final possession, Caleb Morris and Walker attempted a dribble handoff on the right wing, but Robotham and Amauri Hardy surprised Morris with a double-team.

Morris was stuck in no-man’s land, and his off-balance heave barely grazed the backboard. Blair corralled the rebound again and gave it to Robotham, who hit two more free throws with less than a second remaining to put the game on ice.

Menzies said double-teaming on the last possession was a gamble, but considering the success Air Force has had scoring against UNLV this season, he was willing to try just about anything.

Heading into the final 30 seconds of Tuesday’s contest, Air Force had shot a combined 56.5 percent against UNLV this year. The Falcons made 40-of-67 in the first game (59.7 percent) and were 30-of-57 in the rematch (52.6 percent) before UNLV got its back-to-back stops.

“We did some things that I thought gave them some tough looks at the basket in the last few minutes,” Menzies said.

Menzies praised Blair for his toughness on the defensive glass, and the Rebels also benefitted from having Mbacke Diong on the court for 31 minutes. Diong missed the first meeting with an ankle injury, but the 6-foot-11 rim protector did his job in the rematch, totaling nine rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Diong’s plus/minus rating of +15 was the best among UNLV players.

“My job was to keep them off the glass,” Diong said. “And do my work early so I don’t let them have deep touches … I’m not going to say I did a good job, but I did a decent job because we got a win.”

Air Force was led by forwards Lavelle Scottie and Ryan Swan, who once again tortured the Rebels to the tune of 42 combined points on 19-of-29 shooting. But when the game was on the line, UNLV kept the ball out of their hands.

Offensively, the Rebels were led by Hardy, who tallied 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Hardy said the game plan was to use ball screens to attack the Air Force defense with penetration, and he had success driving to the rim repeatedly.

Once Hardy got on a roll, Menzies had no problem calling the same plays over and over again.

“We like to go back to things that work, obviously,” Menzies said. “Amauri, when he’s feeling it, he’s got a different look. And he was feeling it. So we put him in middle ball screens tonight, which I thought he was really good at executing. He made some good passes out of them. He also had some good finishes.”

Blair finished with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting and Robotham scored 12.

UNLV improves to 7-5 in Mountain West play and 13-11 overall. The Rebels will now hit the road for consecutive away games at San Jose State (Saturday) and Wyoming (Feb. 19).

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

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