Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024 | 8:18 p.m.
How quickly can things change in the Mountain West? Less than two weeks ago, UNLV dropped a 90-58 decision to last-place Air Force at the Thomas & Mack Center. At the time, it looked like it might be a season killer.
But forget about that, because suddenly the Scarlet and Gray are the hottest team in the conference. On Saturday, Kevin Kruger’s squad won its third straight game, blowing out Wyoming, 62-48, to move into a tie for fifth place in the MWC standings.
From the desolation of the Air Force defeat to having a bye in the conference tournament if the season ended today, it’s been quite a swing.
The only people not surprised by the turnaround are the players themselves.
After scoring 14 points to help lead UNLV past Wyoming, senior wing Luis Rodriguez said he and his teammates never got down on themselves when things looked most bleak.
“I think it shows our resiliency and our togetherness,” senior wing Luis Rodriguez said. “We saw what the media was saying about us [after Air Force]. I feel like a lot of people gave up on us, but we didn’t give up on ourselves.”
Since that Air Force stumble, UNLV has won at San Jose State and at home against Fresno State and now Wyoming, with an average margin of victory of 11.7 points.
The Scarlet and Gray are now 12-9 on the year and 5-4 in conference play. The three straight victories have moved them into a tie for fifth place with Wyoming and Colorado State at the halfway point of the Mountain West season.
D.J. Thomas was a driving force again on Saturday, as the freshman point guard posted 14 points, five assists and four steals in an unusually light 29 minutes. He scored two driving baskets during an 8-0 run to open the second half that helped UNLV extend its lead to 39-23.
The lead got as high as 23 points midway through the second half, and UNLV glided the rest of the way — a result that would have been difficult to imagine for any of the dispirited fans who left the Thomas & Mack Center early during the loss to Air Force.
Thomas echoed Rodriguez in saying they didn’t let their worst performance of the season affect them after the final buzzer sounded on Jan. 23.
“We know that game wasn’t us,” Thomas said. “We put that game behind us and got back to what we were doing.”
UNLV played a strong 40 minutes on the defensive end, holding Wyoming to 34.6% shooting. The perimeter defense especially shined; Wyoming came in ranked No. 18 in 3-point accuracy at 38.1%, but UNLV limited them to 4-of-25 from deep (16.0%).
Senior wing Keylan Boone contributed 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds. Freshman guard Brooklyn Hicks made the most of his time again, scoring seven points in 19 minutes off the bench and registering a plus/minus of +9.
UNLV will have a week off before taking their winning streak to New Mexico for a Feb. 10 showdown.
The Pit is a difficult place to play, but Kruger believes his team has proven it can compete with any team in the Mountain West — despite that one black mark on their résumé.
“We didn’t feel like that was us,” Kruger said. “We’ve now played nine games, and we’ve played eight pretty good basketball games. We understand that’s the one that’s going to be talked about all the time. That’s the one that’s going to be continued to be brought up. That’s the one that’s going to get the most attention. That’s the one that gets people riled up. But eight of our nine have been pretty good.”