UNLV coach Kevin Kruger and the legendary Jerry Tarkanian have something in common. In the past 32 years, they are the only two coaches who have led the Rebels to a 10-0 start to a season.
Just don’t tell Kruger.
“Settle down,” he said with a wry smile. “We’re not doing that. We’ve done a really good job of working. The guys have done a really good job of competing every day.”
Led by sophomore Keshon Gilbert’s career-high 25 points, UNLV beat Washington State 74-70 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden in the first game of the Las Vegas Clash.
It’s UNLV’s first 10-0 start since the 1990-91 season, when Tarkanian and the Rebels won their first 34 games before losing to Duke 79-77 in the Final Four after Anderson Hunt’s missed 3 in the final seconds.
Kruger said his only goal has been to build a team that the city of Las Vegas and UNLV alumni can enjoy supporting. The Rebels coach gets texts from Hunt after almost every game, which tells Kruger this team is going in the right direction.
“He just appreciates how hard they play,” Kruger said. “That’s what he says every time he texts, and that’s what we’re going for. I think this team’s doing it, but we have to understand now that it’s starting to get a little attention.
“Every game is going to be a bigger challenge, but hopefully we’re excited and hungry for that opportunity and those eyeballs, because it should still be fun.”
Early on, it seemed like UNLV caught Washington State at the wrong time. The Cougars (4-5) went 5-for-5 from the field to start the game, including three 3s to take an early 13-4 lead. Kruger said Washington State did a good job of finding open shooters with cross-court passes.
UNLV’s luck got worse when starting wing Elijah Parquet landed awkwardly while fighting for an offensive rebound. The fifth-year former Colorado transfer left the game and did not return to action, though he did sit on the bench during the second half with a large wrap on his left knee. Kruger didn’t have an update on his availability after the game.
Despite missing Parquet, UNLV picked up some momentum. The Rebels went on an 18-0 run, starting with a jumper from senior wing Luis Rodriguez with 15:10 remaining in the first half and ending with a transition 3 by senior guard Justin Webster four minutes later. Washington State’s 3-point shooting kept it close, though, and UNLV led only 33-30 at halftime.
The Cougars stayed locked in from range to start the second half, too. Washington State, one of the best shooting teams in the Pac-12, went 5-for-5 from 3 out of the break to tie the game at 45. Junior guards TJ Bamba and Justin Powell combined for nine 3s overall, and the Cougars shot 56.5 percent from distance for the game.
As the two teams traded baskets down the stretch, the Rebels leaned on Gilbert and fifth-year guard EJ Harkless, who had 15 of his 20 points after the break.
“I’ve got a lot of guys surrounding me who play just as hard as me, sometimes even harder,” Gilbert said. “So it’s a collective thing. It’s everyone.”
UNLV’s defense rose to the challenge once again. The Rebels forced 22 turnovers, which turned into 31 points, including 21 on the fast break.
Defense also clinched the game, as senior forward Victor Iwuakor didn’t foul Bamba when the guard attempted to bait him into fouling on a 3 with 16 seconds remaining and the Rebels up by three.
Gilbert scored his 25 on an efficient 10-of-15 shooting, and he also added five rebounds, three assists and three steals and took two of the Rebels’ four charges. He was everywhere in the second half — leading fast breaks, scrapping for loose balls, launching 3s and barreling down the lane.
“The mood and the reputation of our team is starting to form a lot to the way Keshon Gilbert plays,” Kruger said. “When you’re the primary ballhandler, the point guard, you’ve got those responsibilities, and I don’t think there’s anybody I’d rather have as the embodiment of the way our team plays.”