Runnin’ Rebels Outlast Gardner-Webb in Season Opener

  • November 11, 2021, 10:01 AM
  • Matt Atencio
Runnin’ Rebels Outlast Gardner-Webb in Season Opener Courtesy: Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review Journal Royce Hamm Jr. (14) celebrates after a blocked shot during Wednesday night's home opener against the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs
The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels faced off against the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs, Wednesday night, in the first game of head coach Kevin Kruger’s tenure.

Gardner-Webb gave the Rebels everything they could handle.  However, their best was not enough, and the Rebels walked away with a 64-58 victory.

“[The win] means a lot,” Kruger said.  “Having this opportunity here is probably even more special than if it were somewhere else.”

Despite neither team shooting well in the early going, UNLV jumped out to a 12-5 lead in the first six minutes of play.  The Rebels went ice cold from the field, allowing the Bulldogs to climb back into the game and take the lead with under 10 minutes to play. 

The Rebel’s defense kept them in the game.  A style of play new coach Kevin Kruger is known for.  Every shot Gardner-Webb took was contested, and they were unable to get consistent, easy layups at the rim.  They also helped force 11 of the teams 16 turnovers in the first half.

Under five minutes to go in the half, Gardner-Webb extended the lead to five.  The Rebels then went on a 10-2 run to close out the half.  Despite shooting 7-34 from the field (1-17 from three), the Rebels went on a 10-2 run to take a 27-24 lead into halftime.

The Rebels went on an 8-2 run to open the second half.  Due to the continued poor shooting from the Rebels, however, Gardner-Webb was able to hang around in the game.  Every time the Rebels looked like they were about to take control, the Bulldogs would hit clutch shots to keep the game close. 

Gardner-Webb tied the game at 51 with just under five minutes to play.  Bryce Hamilton, the team’s star senior guard, took over from this point.  He scored the teams next nine points to give them a 60-51 lead.

Things got really interesting from there, as Gardner-Webb went on a 6-0 run to cut the lead to just three.  With under a minute to play, Hamilton turned the ball over driving to the net, leading to a fast break for Lance Terry. 

Terry was fouled on the initial shot by Donovan Williams, who stood over him afterwards.  This drew a technical foul and with 50 seconds left in the game, Terry had four free throw shots awarded to him. 

Terry missed all but one of those attempts, allowing the Rebels to hold onto their lead.  With 24 seconds to play, Hamilton iced the game with a layup to give the Runnin’ Rebels a 62-58 lead.  Michael Nunga knocked down two more free throws to put the game completely out of reach, and the Rebels walked away with a 64-58 victory. 

Royce Hamm Jr. was by far the teams best overall player on the court for Wednesday’s game.  Hamm Jr. finished with 18 points, 17 rebounds, and four blocked shots.  Not only was he getting it done offensively, but he was also a force protecting the rim for the Rebels.  His play almost single handedly kept the Rebels from letting this game slip away.

“This is nothing new for me,” Hamm Jr. said. “I come in every day and work. I just try to be humble and continue to help my team out in any way I can.”

Bryce Hamilton finished the game with 22 points on 8-of-25 shooting.  While he did struggle to score through a large majority of the game, he was near perfect down the stretch.  Hamilton went 4-of-5, including knocking down the teams second three-point shot of the game.  He also hit two clutch free throws during that stretch.

“I just stayed confident,” Hamilton said. “My teammates give me that confidence.  I put in the work too, so I trust my work also. If it wasn’t for my teammates giving me that confidence, I couldn’t have done [that].”

While a win is a win, there were some concerning signs for the Rebels.  Chief among them was their shooting.  They finished the game shooting 20-of-66 (30.3%) from the field, and only 2-of-25 from beyond the arch.  Before Hamilton’s three pointer went in, the team missed on 19 straight three-point attempts. 

“We’ll take this one as a staff,” Kruger said. “We didn’t maybe put as much emphasis on the offensive side of the ball until recently. We thought we could make an imprint with this team defensively.”

The Runnin’ Rebels homestand continues on Nov. 13 as the team takes on the California Golden Bears at Thomas and Mack Arena.  Tipoff is at 5:00 P.M. and the game will be available on the Mountain West Network.

Matt Atencio

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