Rebels get back on track in Simon’s debut

Now that’s more like it.

UNLV played like the team many expected to contend for a Mountain West championship heading into the season in interim Todd Simon’s head coaching debut on Tuesday night, building a 22-point second half lead en route to an easy 86-74 victory over New Mexico at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Playing their first game since the resignation of Dave Rice on Sunday, the Runnin’ Rebels (10-7, 1-3) upped the tempo with an aggressive trapping defense that forced 14 Lobo turnovers and resulted in a 24-7 UNLV advantage in points off turnovers.

Offensively, the Rebels played at a crisper, more attacking pace and did a much better job of taking care of the ball. UNLV came into the contest averaging 19 turnovers in their three previous Mountain West games but finished with just seven against the Lobos (10-7, 3-1). The Rebels also did a nice job at the free throw line, connecting on 27-of-33 attempts (81.8 percent).

HOW IT HAPPENED: The game was tied at 19 with 8:54 to go in the first half when the Rebels went on a 12-2 run capped by a basket by freshman forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. and went into halftime with a 34-28 advantage. Sophomore guard Patrick McCaw, who scored just two points before intermission, had a pair of 3-pointers and scored eight points as UNLV opened the second half with a 20-9 spurt to take control. The Rebels led by as many as 22 points, 69-47, after a Dwayne Morgan basket with 8:15 to go and New Mexico never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.

WHO STOOD OUT: Zimmerman scored 15 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked four shots. It was the sixth double-double for the 7-foot freshman from Bishop Gorman who set a career high for rebounds and matched his career highs for points and blocks. McCaw led the Rebels with 18 points, senior guard Ike Nwamu finished with 15 points and junior forward Ben Carter and senior guard Jerome Seagears each added 10 points.

Sophomore guard Elijah Brown scored a game-high 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and Cullen Neal added 14 points for New Mexico, which had a three-game winning streak snapped

THE SKINNY: The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the rejuvenated Rebels and gave a suffering fan base some hope of a turnaround under Simon. If UNLV can continue to play with this type of intensity while limiting its turnovers, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Rebels could bring a four-game win streak into a Jan. 27 home date with defending Mountain West co-champ Boise State.

QUOTES TO NOTE:
Simon on the play of Zimmerman who grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds and tied his career highs with 15 points and four blocks.
“It was the best he was all year in my opinion. I mean, 15, 15 and 4 in a league game against a team that has a seven-footer that’s pretty good is phenomenal. That’s answering the bell. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Nwamu when asked if the coaching change was good for the team.
“Honestly, I feel like we would have played the same way if (Rice) was coaching. There were a lot of little things we could have sharpened up on. We made a plan that we couldn’t let those same things repeat itself. I think it would have been fine either way.”

New Mexico coach Craig Neal, to the Albuquerque Journal, on UNLV’s play.
“I thought they came out loose and pretty aggressive, and we got out of whack. We got playing a little bit faster in the half court than we should have. We took some bad shots early. We didn’t really get it inside to (forward) Tim (Williams) like we should have early.”

UP NEXT: The Runnin’ Rebels host Air Force (10-6, 1-3) on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center at 7 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN3.

NOTABLE: UNLV’s bench outscored the Lobos, 39-5. … McCaw’s 18 points were the most he scored in a game since a 80-62 victory over Prairie View A&M on Nov. 28 … The Rebels missed their first 12 3-point tries and finished 7-of-30 (23.3 percent) behind the arc. … Carter had seven rebounds, a team-high four assists, two blocks and two steals to go along with his 10 points. … UNLV improved to 19-9 all-time against the Lobos at home including 15-7 at the Thomas & Mack. … The loss knocked New Mexico out of a first place tie with Boise State, which plays at Nevada on Wednesday night, and San Diego State, which travels to Colorado State.

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