Kevin Kruger felt UNLV’s defensive performance against San Diego State was the best of the season, but the Runnin’ Rebels’ offense came to a standstill in the second half as they dropped their conference opener to the Aztecs 62-55 on New Year’s Day.
UNLV shot just 26.7% from the field in the second half and made 2-of-14 3-point shots as they struggled to break through the Aztecs’ top-10 defense.
Two scoring droughts, one of four minutes midway through the second half and another of five minutes near the end of the game, plagued UNLV as it struggled to find any rhythm offensively.
"You know you're gonna get into [tough, defensive battles] with San Diego State and they did a good job keeping us on our heels and making us earn everything we had,” Kruger said. “You wish, with the best defensive performance we put together this season, we would have ended up with a win and had a better flow offensively, but that's what San Diego State will do to you.”
UNLV held the lead for over 14 minutes in the first half. They limited San Diego State to 31.6% shooting from the field and 18.2% from the 3-point range.
The Aztecs took their first lead with less than five minutes to go in the first half after the Runnin’ Rebels committed their first three turnovers of the game in a span of a minute during game time.
San Diego State never let go of the lead through the rest of the first half and entire second half. The Aztecs controlled the offensive boards with 16 first-half offensive rebounds that led to 12 second-chance points.
Throughout the second half, San Diego State’s defense forced UNLV to take tough shots and limited its ball movement, as UNLV had just five assists in the second half. Bryce Hamilton, who finished with 15 points, shouldered the responsibility for UNLV's struggles on offense.
"We were very stagnant on offense,” Hamilton said. “I put a lot of that myself. We just had to do better moving the ball.”
Kruger credited San Diego State’s ability to close up shooting gaps on potential open shots and disrupt an offensive’s rhythm to force opponents into tough shots.
"There were just a number of times, and we'll see that on film, where we probably just needed to make one more pass and maybe one more movement, move twice, or we might need to move three times,” Kruger said. “It's easy to go back on film and notice and it's easy to kind of see from the side, but it's a whole different world when you're out there.”
UNLV had won its last four games before they opened conference play due to great ball movement, getting good shots, and establishing a rhythm offensively.
Kruger acknowledged that UNLV had not faced a team like San Diego State during its four-game winning streak, with a culture of playing elite defense. But he felt this was a good experience for his team to play against a great defense and get a taste of what is to come in conference play.
Hamilton is confident that UNLV will be fine offensively now that they have experience playing San Diego State and make adjustments to play as it had at the end of non-conference play.
"Just go back to what we had done before,” Hamilton said. “The last couple of games just moving the ball, making that extra pass, and getting in the paint to look for others. That’s something that we’ll do better going on as we watch the film.”
UNLV’s game scheduled for Jan. 5 against San Jose State was canceled due to COVID issues in the San Jose State program. The Runnin’ Rebels are scheduled to return to action next Saturday, Jan. 8 to battle Air Force in Colorado Springs.
Kruger said that given the current situation and teams looking for games that the team will be ready if something changes and UNLV plays sometime in the middle of the week.