Otzelberger is familiar with the Mastodons, while at South Dakota State he played them twice a year in the Summit League. This gave him an advantage in his first game coaching the Runnin' Rebels. The team got off to a great start, Cheikh Mbacke Diong was on the receiving end of a pick-and-roll that led to an open dunk. Jonah Antonio then scored back-to-back 3-pointers, sparking an eruption from the crowd. With three of the starting five being newcomers, Rebel fans were excited to see what talents they brought with them.
The Rebels struggled to pull away in the first half due to turnovers, despite shooting 51.9 percent from the field overall. The Mastodons did not roll over easy, but luckily the team went on a 25-4 run to end the first half ahead with a score of 39-23.
Cheikh Mbacke Diong finished the night with a double-double, 17 points and 17 rebounds. Diong is a ‘big’ reason why the Rebels defense was so effective with four blocks and eight defensive rebounds. Diong will be vital, both offensively and defensively, this season being the go-to center on the roster.
In his first season as a Runnin’ Rebel, Jonah Antonio is off to an exceptional start. Antonio was 5-for-9 from beyond the arc, scoring 17 points for the Rebels. Antonio has a quick release and does not hesitate to shoot when he is even the slightest bit open. Every time he put a shot up, you could hear and see the disappointment in the opponent’s bench all game. Expect to see a lot of Antonio and even more points from the Australian guard.
Donnie Tillman also made his Rebel debut last night, after transferring from Utah. He was a bit antsy, the man could not stay on his feet when he got his hands on the ball, but the fans loved his athleticism. Tillman brought great energy to the floor, keeping the tempo up. His activeness got him to the line quite a few times during the game, ending 10-of-12 from the free-throw line. Tillman finished with 16 points in what seemed an off night for the Junior forward.
Elijah Mitrou-Long, a graduate transfer from Texas, is another great pickup for the Rebels this season. It’s like he has the ball on a string and he handles defensive pressure so well. Mitrou-Long had no trouble breaking the Mastodons press on his own, using his speed to get around defenders off the dribble. Mitrou-Long will likely lead the Rebels offense this season with his quick but controlled style of play. The Senior guard rounded out double figures for the starting five with 11 points last night.
Returning Junior guard Amauri Hardy is a smooth criminal on the court, but we knew that already. There is something so effortless and nonchalant about this guy’s game. He can get to the basket whenever he wants and finishes. That’s exactly what Hardy did in last night’s game putting up 15 points and six assists for the Rebels. With the addition of Long, this will take a lot of the ball-handling pressure off Hardy and give him the opportunity to take on more of a scoring role this season at shooting guard.
Otzelberger did not look too far down the bench, sticking to a rotation of only eight players the whole game. This included Senior forward Nick Blair, Junior center Cheickna Dembele, and Sophomore guard Bryce Hamilton off the bench. Hamilton will be a key player coming off the bench this season. Against the Mastodons, he was able to muscle his way into the paint finishing with seven points in 17 minutes.
The Rebels finally started to pull away towards the middle of the second half when their defensive intensity kicked in, holding the Mastodons to 29.4 percent from the field. The Mastodons struggled to find open looks when faced with the Rebels fun court press. Otzelberger enforced a full-court press multiple times throughout the game to slow down the Mastodons offense and make them work for a good shot. Otzelberger has stressed the focus of defense and hustle to the team since day one, and that mentality showed Tuesday night on the court. Despite defensive efforts, the Mastodons still outscore the Rebels in the second half 48-47.
Now that the first game jitters are out of the way, the team is preparing to take on Kansas State, defending Big 12 Champions, this Saturday at 1 pm at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV is 4-2 all-time vs. Kansas State, and the two teams have not met since 2010.