The UNLV Runnin' Rebels got back to their winning ways with a hard-fought victory over the Rams from Colorado State by the score of 80-72. This win comes on the heels of a rare home loss Saturday against Utah.
This was the first home loss for the Rams this year as they proved to me last night they are certainly are the most improved team this year in the Mountain West Conference.
They played very well on the defensive end by creating 16 Rebel turnovers while committing only 11 of their own. This is usually the formula that can beat the Rebels this year, but Colorado State did themselves in by shooting only 38 percent from the floor while UNLV shot 54 percent.
UNLV got a great, if not unexpected performance by freshman guard Justin Hawkins who had 10 points in 14 minutes of play. All of his points were in the first half which was a see-saw battle ending with a five-point Rebel lead.
The second half saw the Rebels key players, Tre'Von Willis and Chase Stanback take over the scoring and UNLV pulling away in the last few minutes of the game. Willis led the scoring with a game-high 21 points while Stanback added 19.
UNLV also had a great night at the foul line as they shot 82 percent. Once again, coach Lon Kruger used 11 players in the game, moving his rotation in and out of the line up seemingly every few minutes. Only Darris Santee failed to score in his seven minutes of play.
Kruger uses Santee along with Matt Shaw and Brice Massamba in the post while they defend players usually taller at the center position. Last night, the group contributed with eight points, seven rebounds, and two blocked shots. This has been a big concern all season long as Kruger is hoping one of three will stand out and step up.
The Rebels win moved them to 15-4 on the season and 3-2 in conference play. They move on to play TCU on the road this Saturday. The Rebels have Feb. 6 circled on the calendar as it brings their re-match against 13th-ranked BYU, the Mountain West leader with a 5-0 record in conference play.
However, UNLV can not afford to look ahead. Along with TCU, the Rebls have Air Force at home and Wyoming on the road before they get a shot against BYU, a game that looks to be the game of the year in the Mountain West Conference.
After their four-point loss to BYU at the Marriott Center, Kruger said his young team needed to learn how to "close" games. Last night, the young team did just that against the Colorado State Rams.
Hopefully that will continue.