UNLV led by as much as eight early in the second half. But the reigning conference champions, Utah State, would not go away easily. After the Rebels tied the game at 48-48, the Aggies went on a 21-6 in the final eight minutes to defeat the Rebels 69-54.
The Rebels held a 29-27 halftime lead and came out of the gates strong following halftime. They went on a 6-0 run to lead 35-27.
But Utah State coach Craig Smith made a key adjustment to his defense, going to a 1-3-1 zone, which would give UNLV a lot of problems.
Along with the adjustment on defense, UNLV struggled to get stops when it was on defense. Allowing Utah State to set up its defense and keep the Rebels on its toes when bringing the ball up.
“As the game settled in, we had our struggles,” T.J. Otzelberger said. “Even though (Utah State’s) zone and switching defense kept us off balance, I still think it was the defensive side when we were getting stops and playing with pace that were allowing us to be successful.”
After a 6-1 conference start, the Rebels have now dropped four straight conference games.
One of those early conference wins for UNLV came on New Years Day when they defeated Utah State. The difference between that game and this one was Neemias Queta, who did not play in Las Vegas last month.
Queta dominated inside with 21 points, leading Utah State in scoring. He was also able to keep Mbacke Diong in check, who only had six points and four rebounds.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Otzelberger said of Queta’s play, “physical presence, you feel him on every possession both offensively and defensively…he’s an elite player and he put us in some tough spots tonight and dominated on both ends.”
With the help of Queta, the Aggies were able to dominate in the paint and control the boards. Utah State held UNLV to 26 rebounds, which is below its season average of 39.
Also, back for Utah State at full health was Sam Merrill, who had 20 points. Merrill played against UNLV just over a month ago, but he was recovering from an ankle injury.
Leading UNLV with 15 points was Bryce Hamilton and Elijah Mitrou-Long had nine points off the bench.
Amauri Hardy, who scored nine points in the first half, finished with 10 total points.
Jonah Antonio did not play for the Rebels on Wednesday night.
The Rebels fall to 11-13, and 6-5 in conference. UNLV has lost four of its five conference games on the road, including three of the last four which have been away from Las Vegas.
UNLV heads back to Las Vegas, after a tough four-game stretch, Saturday evening to host Fresno State at 5 p.m.