Prior to a thrilling 77-61 win against New Mexico on Jan 10., UNLV had lost four of its last five games and it looked as if the Rebels were heading down another predictable path in conference play.
Head coach Marvin Menzies decided to change the starting lineup, subbing out sophomore wing Kris Clyburn with junior guard Jovan Mooring and senior forward Tyrell Green with freshman forward Cheickna Dembele.
The Rebels are back at .500 (9-9) while the San Diego State Aztecs are 10-7 on the season and have won their last two games at home against San Jose State and Utah State on Saturday after opening conference play with an 0-3 record.
Dembele contributed eight points, four rebounds and three blocked shots against the Lobos while senior Christian Jones added nine points and eight boards. After missing time in the beginning of the season, junior forward Dwayne Morgan made an immediate impact on the floor averaging 9.4 ppg and lead the team with 7.3 rpg but has missed the last nine games because of a shoulder and hip injury.
The Aztecs should know about the injury bug too, as various injuries forced contribution players to miss notable playing time, including senior Matt Shrigley (4 games) and sophomore Max Hoetzel (3 games). Saturday’s win against Utah State marked the return of junior forward Malik Pope, after missing their last six games (nine total) including all four in the MW. Pope made an immediate impact for the Aztecs with nine points, five rebounds, one assist and one blocked shot in 23 minutes of play.
Despite missing three games, Hoetzel will be an outside threat for the Rebels, the sophomore is shooting 18-for-34 (52.9 percent) from three-point land over his last five games. Down low the for Aztecs, sophomore Zylan Cheatham is a two-way threat averaging 10.8 ppg and 6.7 rpg while being third on the team in steals (20).
In Mooring’s first career start, he scored a team-high 19 points, six assists with just one turnover and a career-high five steals against New Mexico. Mooring currently leads the Mountain West in assists with 5.6 apg and has emerged as UNLV’s starting point guard.
Sophomore Jalen Poyser notched another solid double digit performance for the Rebels, and between Poyser and Mooring, the two combined for 11 assists with just two turnovers. Senior Uche Ofoegbu posted a season-high 14 points and career-high four steals after a few disappointing performances.
While it was only for one game, UNLV’s guard play could’ve paced with the best in the conference and this new lineup change just might be the spark that the Rebels needed to get their momentum going against a tough defensive-minded Aztecs team.
San Diego State has an excellent backcourt tandem of sophomore Jeremy Hemsley and junior Trey Kell are averaging 16.1 and 12.6 points, respectively. Hemsley was named MW Freshman of the Year and Kell is a first-team All-MW player and the duo could arguably be the best backcourt in the conference.
Hemsley is making 47.6 percent of his 3-pointers while Kell is doing a great job penetrating the lane and getting to the line, leading the team in free throw percentage (84.7). Hemsley and Kell have posted in double figures in all but eight games combined this season.
Senior Dakarai Allen also continues to be a solid contributor for the Aztecs, averaging career high in scoring and rebounding while leading the team in steals (25) and blocked shots (12). Allen is also shooting 64.3 percent from the field so the Rebels will have to find a way to contain the two-way guard.