Las Vegas Sun

April 14, 2024

Experience pays off for UNLV basketball in gritty win over Wyoming

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels head coach Kevin Kruger talks with guard EJ Harkless (55) during the second half of an NCAA basketball game against the Fresno State Bulldogs Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Las Vegas.

It’s veteran season for UNLV basketball.

One of Kevin Kruger’s goals during the offseason was to bring in experienced players who could navigate the ups and downs of a long college basketball campaign, and that approach paid off on Wednesday as UNLV’s vets delivered a 69-59 win at Wyoming.

It was a situation that was primed to go sideways for the Scarlet and Gray, who entered the night in desperate need of a victory after being upset by Fresno State on Friday.

Due to a spate of injuries and dismissals over the past two days, Wyoming was down two starters and two more rotation players, a late development that threw a kink into UNLV’s advance scouting report.

The Cowboys fielded a seven-man rotation that was duct-taped together, but UNLV was not caught off guard. Kruger said he discussed the lineup changes with his players and commended their ability to adjust on the fly — a trait of a veteran-led team.

“That was a huge concern,” Kruger said. “A lot of times when you see stuff like that from an opponent, it can distract you a little bit. But the guys knew.”

Wyoming played without top scorer, Noah Reynolds, who was ruled out for the season Monday due to concussions, and starting point guard Ethan Anderson, who was one of three players booted from the team Tuesday.

E.J. Harkless, a fifth-year guard who has played in 123 career games, said UNLV took Wyoming’s skeleton crew seriously.

“Those are guys that were big on the scouting report for us,” Harkless said. “Those are emphasis guys and X-factors for them. It was big for us to pay attention to the other guys and not take it for granted.”

On the court, the first half played out in strange fashion. It took UNLV more than 18 minutes to make its first 2-point basket, but Harkless kept the offense afloat by nailing three 3-pointers.

After shooting an icy 25% as a team, UNLV took a less-than-impressive 25-24 lead into halftime.

On the road, shooting poorly against an unfamiliar opponent, UNLV was one mental lapse away from another shocking upset loss. But the team maintained its composure, and as he has several times this season, Harkless delivered in a huge way in the second half, pouring in 24 points after the break to help UNLV pull away.

The biggest shot of the game came courtesy of another veteran, as Eli Parquet calmly stroked a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock buzzer with four minutes left, increasing UNLV’s lead to 61-50.

Parquet came into the night with just three 3-point makes on the season, but the fifth-year senior did not hesitate when the ball found him.

“Parquet’s 3 was huge,” Kruger said. “Probably ended up sealing it instead of making it really interesting, had [Wyoming] gone down and scored.”

Parquet also led the charge in defending Wyoming’s lone remaining scoring threat, as Hunter Maldonado went for a manageable 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting.

Harkless hit a season-high five 3-pointers and finished with 33 points, tying his career high. He went 8-of-12 from the field, 5-of-8 from long distance and 12-of-14 from the free-throw line.

He came into the game just 30-of-124 from 3-point range (24.1%) but is confident his shot will be there when he needs it.

“I’ve been in a real slump this whole year, so it’s only a matter of time before my percentage catches up to me,” Harkless said.

In addition to the contributions of Harkless and Parquet, senior center David Muoka logged 18 minutes and was +18, the second-highest mark on the team behind Harkless (+19 in 32 minutes).

UNLV will need its experienced leaders to come through in an even bigger way on Saturday, when the team travels to face first-place San Diego State.