The Marvin Menzies era of UNLV basketball started with something that had been accomplished just one other time in 25 previous season openers at the Thomas & Mack Center … a loss.
South Alabama, which finished 14-19 in the 2015-16 season and didn’t have a starter taller than 6-foot-7, overcame a huge free throw disparity to hand the Runnin’ Rebels a 76-68 loss on Friday night before an announced crowd of 9,981.
“Obviously frustrating,” Menzies, the 13th full-time head coach in UNLV history, said. “A lot of miscues. I could go on and on guys about the things we did wrong. There were a lot.”
The Runnin’ Rebels lost despite attempting 25 more free throws and making 20 more than the Jaguars, who were picked to finish sixth in the Sun Belt Conference’s preseason poll and began the season with a RPI of 241.
With 6-8 forward Dwayne Morgan (hip) and 6-11 freshman Cheickna Dembele (foot) still sidelined for the Rebels, South Alabama made itself at home inside, finishing with a 46-28 edge in points in the paint while also parlaying 14 offensive rebounds into a 14-8 edge into second change points.
UNLV also finished with 16 turnovers, including four each by point guards Jalen Poyser and Jovan Mooring, which resulted in a 20-10 advantage for the Jaguars in points off turnovers. The Rebels shot 36.8 percent from the floor, including just 2-of-15 from 3-point range (13.3 percent).
“The way the guys were in the locker room … I was inspired by their pain.” Menzie said. “I felt more for them than myself. I really do think they that play for Vegas, It’s not just a slogan. I mean, they were hurting.”
HOW IT HAPPENED: UNLV used an early 11-0 run featuring a pair of baskets by senior forward Christian Jones to take a 13-6 lead in the first five minutes but South Alabama, taking advantage of four Rebel turnovers over a five-minute span, answered with a 13-2 run of its own to take a 23-18 lead it would never relinquish.
UNLV, which trailed by as many as seven points midway through the second half, closed to with two, 57-55, on forward Tyrell Green’s second 3-pointer of the game with 7:01 to go. But South Alabama senior forward Gerogi Boyanov, who scored all 13 of his points in the second half, answered with a 3-pointer to spark a 7-0 run by the Jaguars, and the Rebels never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
WHO STOOD OUT: Jones, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who transferred to UNLV from St. John’s, had a double-double, scoring a game-high 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting and also grabbing a career-high 13 rebounds. It was the fourth double-double of his career.
Forward Don MuepoKelly led South Alabama with 18 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and two steals while Boyanov came off the bench to score 13 points, including 3-of-3 3-pointers, to go with six rebounds and two steals.
THE SKINNY: The loss marked just the sixth time the Runnin’ Rebels lost in 45 home season openers and the second time in 26 contests at the Thomas & Mack Center.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “It just seemed like every time we’d make a run they’d hit a three. Seriously? My first game? Number 10 (Georgi Boyanov), he buried a three every single time we made a run. I got to give them credit. He played really well for them. I thought he was key at critical times.” – UNLV coach Marvin Menzies.
UP NEXT: The Runnin’ Rebels return to action on Wednesday night when they host UC Riverside at 7 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Click on graphic below for final stats: