Late rally over Spartans snaps Rebels’ three game losing skid with 64-61 win
The second half of conference play hasn’t shaped out the way the Rebels have expected. After enduring multiple injuries, UNLV has been forced to take on a whole new offensive identity after losing two key post players in the past few weeks. With 6-9 Ben Carter out for 6-9 months due to an anterior cruciate ligament tear and 7-foot freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. gone to a left knee injury, the evolution to a 4-guard lineup is three games underway.
UNLV emphasized their depth as a weapon throughout the season but the team’s currently down to seven scholarship players and two walk-ons. Their senior starting point guard, Jerome Seagears is battling a bone bruise in his right hand, however, that didn’t stop the shorthanded Rebels from defeating San Jose State, 64-61 on Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“My hand is really hurting right now and throbbing,” Seagears said post game. The senior finished with 13 points, five rebounds, six steals and no turnovers.
Freshman swingman Derrick Jones Jr.’s importance for the Rebels has increased tremendously after losing bigs Carter and Zimmerman. Usually playing the 3 spot, when sophomore Dwayne Morgan wasn’t on the floor, Jones would be playing out of position at the 5 but size issues on the inside didn’t stop him from putting up career-high 18 rebounds, alongside 14 points and two blocks.
The Rebels have relied on their man-to-man defense majority of the season, and they’ve played much better then. The second half of the Fresno State game, head coach Todd Simon implemented a zone defense that would last for the rest of the game and carry over to Wednesday night’s game before switching back to man.
“I just didn’t like the energy, it became a little flat,” Simon said.
Switching up their defensive style was able to force San Jose to shoot outside their comfort zone, however, their perimeter play in the first half was too much for the Rebels to keep up with. San Jose took advantage of UNLV’s multiple scoring droughts in the first half to take a 13-point lead at halftime. The Spartans outscored the Rebels in the paint 20-12 and earned the edged in second-chance points 10-2.
A depleted frontcourt caused a variety of mismatch issues for UNLV against San Jose State, the fourth tallest team in the nation, but Rebels continued to attack the glass and in the second half lock down on defense.
“Our game plan was to spread the floor and attack,” senior guard Ike Nwamu said.
UNLV held San Jose State to six possessions and caused 13 second half turnovers (16 total) on 31.6 percent shooting.
The Rebels’ 4-guard lineup isn’t an ideal situation for the depleted team, but their strong defense was able to force San Jose to take unorthodox shots that led to long rebounds, igniting that fast-pace tempo that UNLV’s used to playing.
When UNLV is able to grab quick boards and get out in transition, they play their best basketball. And now, the Rebels can have four ball handlers in the game that can score in a variety of ways.
“We’re going out there and playing for one another,” Seagears said. “We only got seven players, a lot of guys banged up, we just got to find a way to get through these games and stick with it.”
The Rebels used a 14-0 run off of nine turnovers to give UNLV their first lead of the game off of a McCaw 3. The Spartans tied it with 1:32 remaining. A go-ahead layup from Seagears essentially sealed the win to snap the team’s three-game losing streak.
It was a dogfight until the very end for UNLV to stay out of the Mountain West cellar against the worst team in the conference but the team never stopped showing that ‘grit’ Todd Simon always talks about.
“Guys got a little riled up, and we came out and fought,” Simon said. “Proud of the guys, proud of the seniors, and guys that stepped up and played well down the stretch.”
UNLV (14-11,5-7) is back at the Thomas & Mack on Saturday, Feb. 13 to host Colorado State (14-10, 6-5) at 7 p.m.
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