Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 | 10:16 p.m.
Before UNLV took the court for Saturday’s home contest against Wyoming, coaches reminded the players that it had been more than a decade since a Rebels team won its first two conference games.
The message stuck, as UNLV powered through a slow first half before pulling away for a 68-56 win.
After the buzzer sounded, senior guard Noah Robotham said improving to 2-0 in the Mountain West was a big deal in the locker room.
“The last bullet point for the pregame talk was 2006,” Robotham said. “That was the last time UNLV went 2-0 in conference play, so we’re trying to win games here and we’re trying to win them early.”
UNLV is now 8-6 on the season and still perfect after a week of MWC play, and Joel Ntambwe was the main catalyst on Saturday. The freshman started at power forward for the second straight game and caught fire, scoring a career-high 31 points on 11-of-17 shooting.
UNLV struggled offensively in the first half and went into the break trailing, 32-30, but Ntambwe lit up the Wyoming defense early in the second half, scoring eight straight points to give the Rebels a 40-36 lead. After a pair of free throws by Wyoming center Hunter Thompson, the Rebels ran off another 10 points, with Ntambwe contributing a pair of baskets as UNLV stretched the lead to 50-38.
Wyoming only got within single digits one more time, cutting UNLV’s lead to 58-47 with four minutes remaining. But Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua finished off an alley-oop dunk from an Amauri Hardy pass, and Ntambwe converted a fast-break layup to seal the win.
Ntambwe has averaged 19.9 points over the last seven games.
“My teammates told me to just keep shooting and keep it simple,” Ntambwe said. “That’s all I did. I went out there and played with confidence. And I made pretty much all my shots.”
Wyoming senior guard Justin James came into the night averaging 21.3 points per game, and he was the top priority for the Rebels on the defensive end. After James got off to a hot start and scored 13 points in the first half, UNLV tweaked the game plan and held him to two points on 1-of-4 shooting over the final 20 minutes.
Robotham credited the coaching staff for changing things up and making it work.
“I thought our defensive adjustments separated us in the second half,” Robotham said. “We definitely mixed up the coverage on James, sent some different stuff.”
While Ntambwe feasted on the interior, Wyoming’s zone defense made life difficult for UNLV’s guards. Robotham and Hardy combined to shoot 3-of-18, but they made up for it by totaling 14 assists (and just four turnovers).
After dispatching Wyoming (4-11, 0-2 MWC), the Rebels now set their sights on what should be a measuring-stick game at New Mexico on Tuesday. The Lobos are coming off an 85-58 dismantling of No. 6 UNR, so UNLV will have its work cut out.
Head coach Marvin Menzies said playing at The Pit will be a test for his young team.
"Now we've got to go on the road and be tested there and see how they handle that," Menzies said. "To me, the Pit is, if not the toughest place to play on the road, it's definitely in the top two. You can't even hear. The players can't even hear my calls when they're on the same side. It's really really loud ... So having a little momentum going into that game is good."