UNLV got its first signature win under T.J. Otzelberger, and they earned it. Defending conference champion Utah State came to the Thomas & Mack Center to face a rebuilding UNLV team. However, the Aggies looked and played like the rebuilding team.
The Rebels produced its best and most complete game of the season in a 70-53 victory against the Aggies.
It was never close, not on the scoreboard or by the effort on the floor. UNLV kept up the intensity for 40 minutes. They played aggressive defense and diving all over the floor for loose balls. It’s the type of effort and identity Otzelberger wants to install at UNLV.
“That’s Runnin’ Rebel basketball,” he said after the victory, “and that is what it needs to look like every night.”
It is clear from Otzelberger that he wants this team to play a certain way and has not been afraid to send a message to players who do not want to put in the effort. He has benched players from the starting lineup that are not performing to his expectations.
One of those benched players is Bryce Hamilton. It has been a tough time at UNLV for the four-star high school product from Pasadena, California. Hamilton had limited playing time in his freshman year and has been in Otzelberger’s dog house, due to his play and breaking of team rules, so far this year.
But on the first day of the new year, Hamilton answered the challenge of his coach with his best performance of his young college career. With 20 points on the night, Hamilton lead a Runnin’ Rebel attack on offense that the fans have been wanting to see for a long time.
He only played 22 minutes, but while on the floor, Hamilton was one of the Rebels’ most efficient players. He shot 9-11 (82%) from the field and was involved in many of UNLV’s plays, with a 36.8% usage percentage.
Amauri Hardy has also learned a lesson from his time out of the starting. Hardy has started all season, until the last two games when he was benched.
Now, the team leader is applying what he has learned the past few weeks into his play on the floor. He dished out six assist with 14 points, but Otzelberger noticed him setting an example in many facets of the game.
“I thought (Hardy’s) effort was phenomenal. There were a lot of loose balls he came up with tonight. A more competitive effort that we’ve seen, thought a lot of those guys did (play with more effort and competitiveness)…I think Amauri was elite in that category.”
Utah State was without its best player, Neeimas Queta. And, the Aggies have a matchup with San Diego State on Saturday. So, the Rebels certainly got Utah State in a good spot, but they also worked hard for the win.
Otzelbeger has preached focus, effort, and physicality, which all go together in UNLV’s defensive identity.
The Rebels were sharp all night and made it difficult for Utah State to score. The Aggies, who average 82 points per game entering the game, shot under 33% from the field.
UNLV managed to control the boards against the 2nd best rebounding team in the country, outrebounding the Aggies 41-29. Mbacke Diong controlled the glass for the Rebels, with 14 rebounds along with his 10 points.
Now, it is one game. There are still 16 conference games to play over a span of two months, and anything can happen.
If we learned anything from this game, its two things. First, expect the unexpected. A UNLV team, who lost to Pacific and Texas State, outworked the reigning conference champions.
There will be no easy games for UNLV this year (as seen in New Mexico’s loss to San Jose State on Wednesday), they will have to earn every win they can get.
Second, and most importantly, the Rebels can play with anyone on any given night. They will have to play a solid game every night and put a full 40 minutes together. We have seen glimpses of what this UNLV team can be, and against Utah State we saw them firing on all cylinders.
Everything all comes back to the work the Rebels put in defensively. And if UNLV puts in the work defensively, the offense will come easier. Otzelbeger will drill that message into everyone’s head all season, especially after tonight, because we saw it work well.
“Hopefully they can bottle this up, understand this is not a one-time deal, this is who we are and get back to work.”
The Rebels have now won three straight games and they are also one of three remaining undefeated teams in the Mountain West Conference. UNLV returns to the floor Saturday night as they host Air Force at 7 p.m.