LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The UNLV defense that was such a force in the team’s opening weeks showed up Saturday night.
Over the final 3:44, the Rebels held intrastate rival Nevada-Reno scoreless, pulling off a 68-62 Mountain West victory before an announced home crowd of 8,734, the largest of the season at the Thomas & Mack Center.
EJ Harkless led the Rebels, winners of two straight in the conference, with 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals. He also contributed to a huge defensive stop in the final two minutes, drawing a charging foul.
The Rebels had three major defensive stops to close their 14th victory in 21 games and improve to 3-6 in the conference.
“Proud of ’em. Competed like crazy,” said UNLV coach Kevin Kruger, whose team has won three straight against UNR. “This was the first game in a while where you could feel that confidence that defensively we were going to make them earn it late.”
It was far from an offensive masterpiece, though. Both teams rely on defense, and the overall offensive statistics showed that.
The Rebels shot 42.9% (21-for-49), including 36% (9-for-25) on 3-pointers. The Rebels weren’t great from the free-throw line either, at 58.6% (17 of 29). The Wolf Pack shot 36.4% (20-fof-55) overall, including 41.2% on 3s. Their free-throw shooting — 15-for-17, 88.2% — kept it close.
Each team managed to string together key scoring spurts. A 14-5 run by UNLV built a seven-point lead with 9:26 left. But the Wolf Pack put up an 8-0 burst to lead 57-56 with 6:19 left.
Justin Webster added 17 points, a season high, for the Rebels, including five 3-pointers. “My teammates were able to find me and I was able to knock ’em down,” Webster said.
Harkless said the victory was a good feeling, especially coming against a team that was hot coming into the game. UNR is 16-6 in the conference, 6-3 overall and was fresh off a 97-94 double-overtime upset of No. 25 New Mexico.
“Nevada’s a very hot team, and we’ve been kind of fractured,” Harkless said. “We had two good weeks of practices and a had good outcome with Wyoming (a victory) and now Nevada … so it felt good.”
Jarod Lucas led UNR with 15 points and Kenan Blackshear and Darrion Williams each scored 13. Will Baker had a game-high 10 rebounds.
Kruger said he and his players appreciated the pro-UNLV crowd and its boisterous response throughout.
“There are no words you can put into how great it was to go out there and see that, how important it is,” he said. “Hopefully, everyone had a great time. I know the guys appreciated it, and I know we appreciated it as a staff and also as a university.
“Just going out there and seeing people cheering and seeing people talking, it had that buzz of a rivalry game. There was no doubt that having the crowd get into it the way they did tonight was a huge advantage for us.”