Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023 | 7 p.m.
It took a loss to bring it out of them, but the UNLV basketball team flexed their muscles on Saturday, bouncing back from a disappointing loss on opening night to throttle Stetson, 71-55.
The blowout win featured everything Kevin Kruger wanted to see from his squad in the opener: assertive offense, stifling defense and, most importantly, energy from everyone who checked into the game.
Senior forward Jalen Hill put in the majority of his work on the interior, bruising his way to 16 points and 14 rebounds, both team highs. With Hill setting the physical tone, UNLV jumped out to a 34-21 halftime lead, then opened the second half with an 8-0 run to put it out of reach.
Kruger was most impressed with UNLV’s work at the defensive end, where the Scarlet and Gray held Stetson to 31.8% shooting while forcing 11 turnovers.
After a morose performance in Wednesday’s shocking loss to Southern University, Kruger spoke about the need for more intensity across the board. On Saturday, he got it.
“Obviously a much better night,” Kruger said. “Much better intent from the start. We weren’t passive at all. Very assertive, aggressive at the defensive end.”
Senior wing Luis Rodriguez notched 13 points and eight rebounds, and provided some juice with a steal and breakaway dunk during UNLV’s spurt to open the second half.
Rodriguez confirmed that the loss to Southern fueled he and his teammates to come out with a purpose on Saturday.
“We obviously had something to prove, coming off that last game, not performing how we wanted to,’ Rodriguez said. “This was just a huge bounce-back game for us, getting back on track.”
Five different UNLV players made 3-point shots, led by senior guard Justin Webster’s 3-of-7 showing. As a team, the Scarlet and Gray connected on 10-of-31 from deep (32.3%).
Freshman point guard D.J. Thomas facilitated a handful of those 3’s, as he collected nine assists in his second career game.
Thomas committed five turnovers in the first half against Southern, so his zero-giveaway performance in 34 minutes was a huge part of UNLV’s offensive turnaround.
“I take a lot of pride in taking care of the ball,” Thomas said. “I made a point tonight to make sure I had no turnovers.”
UNLV is now 1-1 on the season, and Kruger will have a week of practices before taking his team on the road for the first time for a matchup at Pepperdine on Friday.
The big question for that game — and every UNLV game the rest of the way — is whether Kruger can count on them to bring the same fire they brought against Stetson.
Kruger indicated that will be up to the players.
“We’d better,” he said.