For about nine minutes Monday night, UNLV’s game with New Mexico Highlands was beginning to look eerily familiar to some other head-scratching contests against Division II opponents in recent years.
The Runnin’ Rebels missed their first four free throws and turned the ball over five times while struggling to take an unimpressive 13-10 lead against the Cowboys (1-1), who were coming in off an 89-74 loss to West Texas A&M and playing the game as an exhibition.
Then UNLV’s pressure defense, led by sophomore forward Dwayne Morgan, kicked in and the Rebels flexed their muscles in a big way, closing the half out with an amazing 47-4 run that included a 28-0 spurt en route to an 107-45 laugher at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Freshman forward Stephen Zimmerman scored 15 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots and freshman guard Jalen Poyser added a game-high 16 points, including 4-of-4 3-pointers, to lead UNLV (2-0). Freshman forward Derrick Jones Jr. (14), senior guards Jerome Seagears (12) and Ike Nwamu (12) and sophomore guard Patrick McCaw (11) also scored in double figures for the Rebels, who forced 27 turnovers and finished with a 41-6 edge in points off turnovers.
Morgan scored just two points but also had six rebounds, four assists and a steal in 13 minutes of action before fouling out. His defensive contribution of continually harassing Cowboy players on UNLV’s press was credited with helping spark the Rebels out of their lethargic state.
“The start of our runs was really when Dwayne really got into the press and started making some plays,” junior forward Ben Carter, who flirted with a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds in his first start with the Rebels, said. “I think that really set the tone for us defensively.”
Head coach Dave Rice agreed.
“Dwayne Morgan on the ball in the press is what changed the dynamic in the game,” Rice said.
UNLV shot 54 percent and connected on 13-of-27 3-pointers. The Rebels led by as many as 62 points, 90-28, after a dunk by Zimmerman with 8:32 to go.
Speaking of dunks … Check out this one by Jones – dubbed “Basketball Jones” by announcer Tony Cordasco — that set the Twitter-verse on fire.
— UNLV Basketball (@TheRunninRebels) November 17, 2015
Jones also had four steals and McCaw had three to lead the Runnin’ Rebels who finished with 13 thefts. Rice emptied his bench, using 11 players except for junior forward Tyrell Green.
“We’re considering redshirting him, so we’ll have to make that decision shortly,” Rice said.
Senior guard Jonathon Mines led New Mexico Highlands with 12 points.
UNLV hosts Southern Utah on Wednesday before heading to Hawaii to face UCLA on Monday night in the quarterfinals of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.