UNLV wins ugly in Kevin Kruger’s debut

Kevin Kruger picked up a win in his first game as a head coach, a brutal 64-58 victory over Gardner Webb. It was the first time seeing this team and this coaching staff. 

We learned a lot. First the bad news.

Getting to the rim

It felt like last season all over again. Last year UNLV struggled to create layups in the half court. No one could beat their man off the dribble (or with a ball screen) and get to the rim. 

It led to Bryce Hamilton hoisting mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper. 

Tonight wasn’t much better. 

In the first half UNLV attempted just five layups, three of which were in transition. 

The second half was better, as the Rebels ended with 18 total layups in the game. But this was Gardner Webb, likely one of the worst defensive teams on the schedule. UNLV should have been able to bludgeon their way to the rim. 

Michael Nuga was the most disappointing. After averaging over 17 points per game at Kent State last year, Nuga had a dud in his Rebel debut. 

He scored just 4 points, all from free throws. He did not attempt one layup. 

Donovan Williams, a potential third scoring option, only had a single shot near the rim. 

If UNLV is going to improve offensively, someone has to be able to create layups in the half court. 

At least the streak lives on

UNLV wasn’t shy about launching up threes, attempting 25. But the Rebels made just two of them for a dismal 8 percent shooting from deep.

The Rebels will certainly shoot better than 8 percent; Michael Nuga (career 36% three point shooter) and Justin Webster (career 35.1% three point shooter) were a combined 0 of 5. 

But most of this roster has not proven to be good from three-point range. While 2 of 25 is not going to happen again, UNLV could wind up as a poor three-point shooting team. 

Jordan McCabe’s absence

Jordan McCabe missed the season opener, as he had to serve a one game suspension from the NCAA. McCabe played in an unsanctioned event, leading to the suspension. He will be back for Saturday’s game against Cal.

Now for the good:

Bryce Hamilton, the closer

Bryce Hamilton was struggling. With five minutes to play, Hamilton was shooting just 4 of 19. Gardner Webb used a 6-0 run to tie the game at 51. Then Hamilton took over. 

He scored the next 11 UNLV points on 4 of 6 shooting to put the Rebels up 62-58. 

Hamilton has led UNLV in scoring the last two seasons. He hasn’t always been the most efficient and that was true again tonight. But he delivered in the biggest moment. 

UNLV will need Hamilton to be better in the first 35 minutes of games to keep picking up wins. But he can always turn it on. 

Royce Hamm delivered

Prior to Hamilton’s outburst, Royce Hamm was UNLV’s only bright spot. Hamm finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds. He helped stabilize a bad shooting night by snatching eight offensive rebounds. He also blocked a game-high four shots, as he made an impact on both ends. 

One game in, Hamm has already cemented himself as critical piece of this Runnin’ Rebel team.

Free throws saved the day

There are three efficient shots in basketball: layups, three pointers and free throws. While UNLV struggled mightily with the first two, the Rebels attempted 27 free throws. 

Oh, and they made 22 (81.5%). 

UNLV only put up .914 points per possession against one of the weaker teams on the schedule. Had it not been for the parade to the free throw line, the offense likely would have sunk the Rebels to a loss in Kevin Kruger’s debut. 

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