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UNLV holds on late to upset Utah State 59-56

The Runnin’ Rebels have now won five in a row, bringing them to .500 overall (6-6).

Utah State v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

After a 1-6 start and 33 day pause, UNLV went on a four game winning streak, but it was against a pair of NAIA opponents and a sweep against New Mexico who is tied for last place. So, we would see how good this UNLV team was when one of the top teams in the conference, and current bubble team, Utah State came to Las Vegas for a two game series.

UNLV managed to hold onto its late lead, as Utah State’s last charge came up short, and the Runnin’ Rebels took the victory 59-56. UNLV’s lead was nine, 57-48, with under 90 seconds remaining, but Utah State cut it to a one-point game with 10 seconds left. With three seconds left, Moses Wood blocked a potential game tying three-pointer that sealed the win for UNLV.

“It was a really hard fought game on both sides,” T.J. Otzelberger said after the win. “Certainly a defensive battle down the stretch. We kind of bent... fortunately we didn’t break and made just enough plays defensively. We talked about it a lot - if we can hang our hats on our defense like we did tonight, we’ll figure the rest out.”

Before the chaos of the final two minutes, it was a tale of two halves. The two teams combined to score 73 points in the first half, as UNLV led heading into the break 39-34. But the second half was a defensive struggle as both teams combined to 20.6 percent (12 of 58) in the second half while only scoring a combined 42 points.

The Runnin’ Rebels were able to hold the Aggies to 22.7 percent (5 of 22) from behind the arch, while UNLV shot 43.3 percent and made 13 three-pointers. UNLV’s largest lead of the second half was 10 points, 53-43 with over four minutes to play, but Utah State went on a 13-4 run to cut it to a one point game, 57-56 with 10 second to play. David Jenkins hit two late free throws that made it a three point game, and Wood’s block secured the win for UNLV.

“We’re on a roll now, that’s five in a row, I think we’re hot, we’re on a roll,” Wood said. “I feel really good about Wednesday coming up and the rest of the season. I think we are one of the most dangerous teams right now in the Mountain West.”

The biggest matchup coming into the game was the battle of the centers, Mbacke Diong, who has been averaging 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds since the Runnin’ Rebels returned from its COVID pause, and one of the best players in the conference, Neemias Queta.

Diong was able to hold his own against Queta, as he held him to only eight points and three made field goals on nine shots, he also matched Queta on the boards as they both pulled down 11 rebounds. The Runnin’ Rebels put Queta in a lot of high ball screens and took him away from the basket, which limited the amount of times he could get a rebound or make a play in the paint on defense.

Offensively, both Bryce Hamilton and Jenkins had 14 points each to lead the Runnin’ Rebels in scoring. Hamilton missed the last game to an ankle injury and was able to gut out a solid performance tonight where he added eight assist and had a career high five steals. Wood was the other UNLV player in double digits with 10 points.

Despite playing a significantly fewer number of games compared to the other top seven teams in the conference, UNLV is in fifth place with a 6-6 overall record and 3-2 MWC record. They trail Boise State, Utah State, Colorado State, and San Diego State, respectively, in the standings.

With a pair of close loses to Colorado State on the road, and questions if Boise State and San Diego State are as good as their records are, there is a slight chance UNLV could be in a bid to play spoiler and steal a NCAA Tournament bid at the Mountain West Tournament this March, in its own building.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, as UNLV will play the Aggies again, and travel on the road to face the Wolf Pack and first place Broncos with over a month left to play in the season. It is still an encouraging sign to see this UNLV team, who started 1-6 and is without starting point guard Marvin Coleman, playing well and up to the expectations many labeled them with before the season started.

Marco Anthony led Utah State in scoring with 18 points as he shot 33.3 percent from the field and added nine rebounds and three assists. Justin Bean was the only other Aggie in double digit scoring, with 10 points.

“Proud of our guys for finding a way to come out with a win,” Otzelberegr said. “Even when our offense was kind of sputtering we showed that we can hang our hat on that defense to bring home a victory.”

Both teams return to action Wednesday night at 8:00 PM PT, the game will be live on CBS Sports Network and can be heard on the radio on ESPN Las Vegas 1100 AM/100.9 FM.