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UNLV Rebels vs Akron Zips

Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels forward Jalen Hill (1) defends against Akron Zips guard Shammah Scott (1) during the second half of an NCAA basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023.

The UNLV basketball team was faced with its ultimate nightmare scenario on Tuesday, as a late turnover gave visiting Akron the ball and a chance to tie or take the lead in the final seconds.

For a Scarlet and Gray squad that has been unable to slow opposing offenses this season, it was now or never.

And to Kevin Kruger’s delight, they came through, playing solid team defense to force a long 3-point miss with two seconds remaining to secure a closer-than-it-needed-to-be 72-70 win.

UNLV is now 3-3 on the season, and after finally getting the big stop, Kruger was more than happy to overlook anything that came before it.

“Hey, we did what we needed to do to hold onto [the win], and we’re not going to give it back,” Kruger said.

After allowing both of their opponents to shoot better than 60% in back-to-back losses in the Sunshine Slam last week, the Scarlet and Gray turned in a much better defensive effort from the outset against Akron. Kalib Boone was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time this season, and the frontcourt of Boone, Jalen Hill and Luis Rodriguez did a credible job of keeping Akron away from the rim (11-of-21 on layups and dunks).

In the backcourt, freshman D.J. Thomas was committed to staying in front of ballhandlers and did his part in keeping the ball out of the paint.

For the game, Akron shot 46.3% from the field — nothing to be proud of, except in the context of the way UNLV’s defense was shredded in prior games.

Thomas was proud of the progress he and his teammates made over the past week.

“Just being more intense,” Thomas said. “More communication. Playing more team defense and really focusing on keeping our man in front of us, because we haven’t done a great job of that the past 4-5 games. I feel like we’ve gotten better at that.”

UNLV built a 41-31 lead at the break and pushed the advantage as high as 18 points early in the second half, but Akron hung around long enough to make a run at the end. The Zips used a 10-2 spurt in the final minutes — aided by a backcourt turnover by UNLV — to cut the deficit to two points with 45 seconds left.

Looking to deliver a dagger, Thomas instead committed one of his two turnovers, and suddenly UNLV had to scramble back on defense for the biggest possession of the game. To make the situation even more perilous, Akron did not call timeout after gaining possession, which meant Kruger was not able to communicate any defensive strategy for the final stand.

The players were on their own.

Though Akron tried to penetrate twice, UNLV’s man defense held up, forcing kick-outs to covered players. The ball finally ended up in the hands of Zips guard Mikal Dawson with time running out, and he forced a long, contested 3 from the left wing that barely drew iron.

Thomas covered the rebound and that was that.

Thomas said that even without a timeout to set the defense, the team was locked in on the final possession because the coach staff had drilled those scenarios throughout the week.

“We worked on it all week in practice, those late-game situations,” Thomas said. “I think they did a great job of preparing us for moments like that, so it just became habit.”

From Kruger’s vantage point, the fear was that Dawson would make a crazy shot and render a good defensive possession moot.

“When it left his hand, from where I was standing I wasn’t sure. That would have been a heartbreaker,” Kruger said. “But all night I thought we did a really good job of guarding the ball fullcourt.”

Thomas finished with 12 points and six assists, while Luis Rodriguez scored a team-high 13 points. Jackie Johnson chipped in 11 points in 19 minutes off the bench.

Akron big man Enrique Freeman bulled his way to 22 points and 13 rebounds, but on the game’s most critical possession, UNLV didn’t give him any space to operate.

“I think when we watch the film, for the most part, we’re going to be really happy with a lot of our halfcourt defensive possessions,” Kruger said.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

Article written by #LasVegasSun

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