The first few minutes were a bit shaky for UNLV, the Rebels trailed the Falcons early and had five turnovers that put them at a deficit. And when UNLV needed a spark, senior captain Mbacke Diong came up with a steal and dunk to give UNLV its first lead of the game.
UNLV proceeded to go on a 19-2 run to get the lead up to double-digits and they never looked back as they defeated Air Force 80-52. The Rebels relied on great shooting and scoring from the trio of Bryce Hamilton, David Jenkins, and Diong to put the Rebels ahead.
Diong, who finished with 16 points on 70% shooting, scored six straight points in the early part of that 19-2 run to give not UNLV the lead but fueled the team the rest of the way, just as he has done so many times throughout this season.
“Those steals, when he gets those deflections and steals, gets those transition dunks we’ve seen from him, it’s worth more than two points to our team. It gets our guys going and gives us great energy,” Otzelberger said after the win.
Shooting 57.4% from the field today, it was the best shooting performance for UNLV this season against an NCAA opponent and 31 field goal makes tied for the most makes against an NCAA opponent this year.
Hamilton, Jenkins, and Diong each combined to shoot over 58% from the field. The Rebels had a solid night from three, making nine of its 17 3-point baskets. Jenkins lit it up from behind the arch, hitting six of nine shots, including five in the second half. 18 of his 21 total points were scored in the second half.
Hamilton looked to be back to his old self after struggling a bit down the stretch. He scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half, but more importantly, he grabbed seven rebounds and had four assists. Otzelberger has talked throughout the year how important it is for Hamilton to be an effective rebounder and help move the ball on offense, especially with so many teams putting a lot of attention on him.
UNLV created so much offensively thanks to its intent, focus, and pressure defensively. The Rebels guarded the 3-point line well, as Air Force missed its first 11 3-point shots. Guarding the 3-point line has been a struggle for UNLV throughout the year, but tonight they brought the effort defensively, which pleased Otzelberger.
“We’ve talked quite a bit recently about our team’s inability to guard the three-point line and pressure the basketball. And today was as fine as an effort as we’ve had in those categories all season long. Not only did we do that for the first half, but we had that same focus defensively in the second half. I know for our guys, when we’re our best, we’re getting stops and we’re running,” Otzelberger said.
This was the third time UNLV had played Air Force this season, the Rebels swept them in the regular season, but both games were close throughout. They won the first matchup by 10 points and the second one by only four points. In both losses the Falcons managed to shoot over 42% from three, which kept them in the game. Understanding how Air Force runs it’s tricky offense helped, but the focus defensively was a huge reason for the blowout victory.
“The familatiy helped, but I thought our intent and will defensively was much better than it had been...today we had tremendous effort, intent, and defensive focus, and it was great to see this team defend that way.”
UNLV gets Utah State tomorrow in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m PT on CBS Sports Network. The two teams split the regular season matchup and Otzelbeger believes that the more physical team will have the advantage tomorrow.
“The more physical team will win that game tomorrow and we were the more physical team in the first matchup and in the second game it was certainly them...We’re going to have to match that physicality and toughness. We’re going to have to keep the off the foul line and out of the paint and we’re going to have to do a good job defending the paint.”