by Cub Buenning / @cubbuenning
Last week in this very same building, the nationally ranked UNLV Runnin’ Rebels lost their first game of the year, dropping an 83-79 decision to the Oregon Ducks in the opening round of UNLV’s Global Sports Classic Thanksgiving Tournament. For a team that was expected by many to cruise through their non-conference schedule, the Rebels did not dwell for too long, as they quickly bounced back the next night. Iowa State, a veteran squad, provided resistance but not enough as UNLV secured an 82-70 win.
While not completely bounced from the national top 25, the Rebels easily took care of UC-Irvine before the Hawaii Warriors came to Sin City for a match-up of former Western Athletic Conference neighbors.
The home team wasted little time establishing the tempo in a first half that was dominated by an intense half-court defense—much like the kind that Head Coach Dave Rice learned from his mentor and former coach, the legendary UNLV coach, Jerry Tarkanian. The Rebels turned several turnovers into points, many of which were set up by the senior guard tandem of Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins. When the home team wasn’t getting transition buckets off turnovers, they were effective in the half-court with a series of drive and dishes along the baseline.
The visitors from the islands brought in a very balanced attack with four players scoring double-figures for the year. Senior center Vander Jaoquim and his ability to establish an interior presence was going to be integral for Hawaii, but early foul trouble and the aforementioned suffocating Rebel defense kept him at bay for the game’s first 20 minutes. The Rebels were able to stretch their lead out to 20 at 35-15 with six minutes left in the half. And then by even more, as they retired to the locker room holding a seemingly insurmountable 49-27.
But just as quickly as the Rebels played an almost flawless first half of play that accentuated all of their strengths, the second half was a complete 180-turnaround. The Rebels showed little of the defensive intensity, were listless and unimaginative on offense and allowed Hawaii to slowly sneak their way back into game 61-53 just under six minutes remaining. Back-to-back threes from freshman Katin Reinhardt and senior Justin Hawkins quickly bumped the advantage back to a comfortable level. The game, though, was not with out some contentious moments. UNLV’s sloppy play attacking the late-game pressure made for some vocal discontent among the 15,000 faithful in attendance. The anger and impatience was ultimately rewarded, however, as Reinhardt hooked up his fellow freshman, Anthony Bennett with a give-and-go alley-oop in the game’s waning minutes to spark the Rebels to a 77-63 victory.
One bright spot for Hawaii was junior forward Christian Standhardinger, who found holes in the Rebel defense (especially early in the second half) for several easy baskets in the paint. The German finished with 27 points and 9 rebounds.
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of UNLV was on full display this evening. One half was perfect play, the other the exact opposite. Coach Rice was certain the day before the game that unlike past Rebel teams, his group would be playing better in March than they are right now. If that is the case, we are prone to see more of the Rebels we saw in the first half.