UNLV had a week off before its game against Eastern Michigan. The last time they had a week or more off before a game was a 10-day window before the Pacific game, which ended in a UNLV loss.
For the beginning of Saturday’s game, it appeared that history would repeat itself. However, several key players stepped up for UNLV to make sure that would not happen, as they won comfortably against Eastern Michigan 64-49.
For the second game in a row, T.J. Otzelberger rolled out the starting line up of Jay Green, Marvin Coleman, Nick Blair, Vitaliy Shibel, and Mbacke Diong. After a three turnovers, Otzelbeger pulled Donnie Tillman and Amauri Hardy off the bench.
In the first five and a half minutes of the game, Eastern Michigan jumped out to an 8-0 lead. UNLV went 0-9 from the field and committed four turnovers before their first points of the game.
Eventually, Donnie Tillman knocked down a pair of free throws to get the Rebels on the board. And UNLV found its groove and confidence on offense with contributions from key players.
Tillman and Jonah Antonio, who both came off the bench, combined to score 10 points in a 15-2 UNLV run. The Rebels were able to work the ball effectively inside against the Eastern Michigan defense, and lead 28-20 at halftime.
The start of the second half was a complete opposite from the first half. A three-pointer from Coleman, and an ally-op from Hardy to Diong, the Runnin’ Rebels jumped out to a 14-point advantage. The Rebels ran to a quick 16-5 run and never looked back.
Last game against Robert Morris provided an opportunity to give bench and role players, like Marvin Coleman, confidence. Coleman scored seven second half points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Diong, who has been in the starting lineup every game this year, lead the way for the Rebels. He scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half and added five rebounds.
Against Eastern Michigan, UNLV’s stars answered the call to push the Rebels to a victory. Tillman and Bryce Hamilton have been pulled out of the lineup multiple times due to a lack of effort or by breaking team rules. Against the Eagles, they showed Otzlberger they belong in the lineup.
Tillman had 12 points and Hamilton added 13. Hamilton even had his own 7-0 in a 90 second span in the second half. They might not be entirely out of the doghouse, but they are showing the coaches they are buying into the system and can be valuable assets to the team.
While the offense will get the highlights and dominate the conversation, coach Otzelberger reminded us that everything will start with its defense.
”I was pleased today with our guys’ effort defensively,” head coach T.J. Otzelberger said after the win. “I thought we did as good of a job as we’ve done all year executing our game plan. We had a season high in deflections with 34 and I think that’s what allowed us to get that pace and separation that put us in position to win.”
UNLV did enough to get the win. They held Eastern Michigan to only 0.70 points per possession, which was their second lowest of the season.
It is a great sign to see this team find a way to win. Especially when they came out poorly on the offensive end and committed 21 turnovers.
Conference play will be much tougher. UNLV will need to continue to show resiliency against more quality opponents in tougher environments.
It was an important win for UNLV. This was the first winning streak for the Rebels under Otzelberger, who now have to get prepared for conference play.
“Happy with the focus we have had the past few days. Now we are heading into league play, where the antigen gets even more, so we really got to be prepared for a good Utah State team.”
Now the focus shifts to Mountain West Conference play, which begins New Year’s Night, when reigning conference champion Utah State comes to Las Vegas.