Las Vegas, NV—UNLV gave us a small glimpse of the past and lived up it to its moniker, the Running Rebels.
Led by guard EJ Harkless’ 15 points, all five Rebels starters scored in double digits for the first time this season, and UNLV (4-0) beat High Point 78-68 Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Despite entering Friday’s contest as one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, High Point (3-1) struggled early against UNLV’s active defense. The Rebels’ perimeter players stuck was all in the wing players grill, and senior center David Muoka provided a physical presence on the blocks. He had nine boards and two blocks.
“The hard work we’re putting in every day at practice and even leading up to games is paying off,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”
The Panthers calmed down and was able to get their offense going. High Point settled into its defense and got some needed stops. Sophomores Zack Austin and Abdoulaye Thiam started to get hot from downtown, and a stagnant UNLV offense allowed High Point to take a 26-22 lead with five minutes remaining before the break.
Austin and Thiam combined for 25 points and went 7-for-12 from 3 in the first half.
The Rebels trailed 36-33 at halftime.
“It’s huge, from a leadership standpoint when you’ve got the older group. That just go out there and know they have to do what they’re doing defensively to win,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said. “They’re not worried about shot attempts. They’re not worried about touches.”
For the second consecutive game, though, the Running Rebels came out of the break looking like a totally different team on both sides of the ball. Kruger turned to sophomore Jackie Johnson III in search of some high energy, and he delivered with two quick long 3s. He finished the contest with 10 points off the bench.
“He deserves it,” Rodriguez said. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym every day, so just for him to see his work show and make shots like we know he can, that was big for him and his confidence.”
UNLV locked in on defense in the second half. Thiam was kept off the scoreboard for the first 13 minutes of the second half after scoring 14 points in the first 20 minutes of the game. The Rebels forced High Point into 20 turnovers and also got easy buckets in transition, adding 19 points on the fast break, led by Rodriguez, who finished with 12 points.
David Muoka also poured in 12 points, while fifth-year wing Elijah Parquet, and Gilbert chipped in 11 points each. Rodriguez also had 10 boards and five steals, and Harkless and Gilbert combined for 15 assists for the contest.
High Point guard Jaden House was bringing the ball up to start the Panthers’ offense. Rodriguez met him near half court logo and drove him left toward the sideline before swiping the ball away and tossing it to a teammate. High Point fouled, and UNLV sealed the game at the free-throw line.
“They truly believe if they can shut teams down defensively, the offense will take care of itself,” Kruger said. “So far, after four games, it would be hard to dispute that.”
STAT OF THE GAME: UNLV outscored High Point 14-2 in second-chance points after collecting 18 offensive rebounds.
DEFENSE WINS AGAIN: High Point had averaged 100 points per game over its first three contests of the season, but the Runnin’ Rebels held the Panthers to just 68 for the game. After HPU shot 42.4% from the field, including 53.8% on 3-pointers in the first half, UNLV held it to 31.0% overall and 37.5% on 3-pointers over the final 20 minutes. The Panthers finished the game shooting 37.1%.
UNLV will play Southern IL on Tuesday Nov 24 for 1:00 A.M. start time.