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Analysis: Robotham’s defense key to UNLV’s game plan vs. New Mexico

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels guard Noah Robotham (5) covers a player during a game against Pacific at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018.

Senior point guard Noah Robotham rose to the occasion in UNLV’s statement victory at New Mexico on Jan. 8, scoring 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting while dishing out eight assists. It was perhaps his best offensive performance of the season.

And yet, his most important contribution came on the other end of the floor, as Robotham was tasked with defending New Mexico guard Anthony Mathis, who is currently averaging 15.9 points per game while shooting 44.1 percent from 3-point range. UNLV’s defensive game plan called for Robotham to stick to Mathis in all situations, and that’s exactly what Robotham did.

In 38 minutes, Mathis was limited to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting. The sharpshooter only connected on 2-of-10 from 3-point range, and he committed a season-high five turnovers. After the game, UNLV coach Marvin Menzies credited Robotham’s defense as the deciding factor.

So how did Robotham do it? By executing the defensive game plan, which was tailored to counter Mathis’ skill set.

Mathis is a gifted catch-and-shoot player, so when he was playing off the ball, Robotham face-guarded him in an attempt to deny the pass. That left Robotham’s back turned to the action, meaning he was unable to provide help defense or rebounding support, but the Rebels were willing to sacrifice that in order to keep Robotham tethered to Mathis:

When Mathis had the ball, Robotham hounded him with tight defense. Robotham didn’t give Mathis any space to operate with a live dribble, constantly swiping at the ball and making it difficult for Mathis to navigate in the halfcourt.

Robotham got more aggressive as the game went on and he began to anticipate Mathis’s dribbling tendencies. Rotham tipped away several balls, forced Mathis into awkward positions, and came up with a clean steal to ice the game:

For the game, there were six possessions where Robotham defended Mathis in isolation. To demonstrate the level of trust the UNLV coaches showed in Robotham, that was more isolation defense than he had been asked to play in any other game this season. Mathis shot 0-of-4 on those plays with two turnovers.

Mathis made only a pair of 3-pointers in the game, and they both came after he was able to sneak free from Robotham for an instant. The first came in transition after a UNLV turnover in the backcourt, and later he hit a pull-up after Robotham switched on a screen (one of just three times Robotham switched in halfcourt situations):

The combination of off-ball attention and on-ball harassment worked almost perfectly. Mathis never got into a rhythm, and UNLV held New Mexico to 6-of-25 shooting in the second half while securing an 80-69 win.

Robotham, an avid devotee of film study, said it was a defensive game plan the Rebels hadn’t seen anyone else employ against New Mexico this season. And while he didn’t tip his hand as to how UNLV will defend Mathis on Tuesday, when New Mexico visits the Thomas & Mack Center for the return matchup, odds are that Robotham will once again play a big role.

Robotham said he’s prepared for the challenge.

“No team has played them defensively the way we played them,” Robotham said. “Mathis is a big-time player. He’s a great shot maker, he’s a great 3-point shooter. He’ll be ready to play.”

Robotham said having family from New Mexico made him circle the first game on the schedule. And with New Mexico undoubtedly out for revenge on Tuesday, Robotham is looking forward to another opportunity to step up.

“It was a game that I kind of got up for,” Robotham said. “He’s a senior. He’ll be ready to play, we’ll be ready to play. I’m looking forward to the challenge. He’s a great player. Your game will get elevated when you play against other great players.”

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

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