In their second-to-last conference home game of the season, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels welcomed the Air Force Falcons to Las Vegas, and the Rebels narrowly defeated the Falcons by a score of 54-53 in their lone meeting of the year. The Rebels’ snapped a three-game losing streak and they now stand at 17-11 overall and 6-10 in the Mountain West.
Head coach Kevin Kruger said after the game he couldn’t be more proud of how his team fought.
“It just shows that the message got through,” Kruger said. “Couldn’t be more proud of the guys and couldn’t be more proud of how they supported each other.”
The Rebels were without starting forwards Luis Rodriguez and Elijah Parquet for the second-straight game, and as a result, Shane Nowell started his second consecutive game. With 12 minutes remaining in the first half, the Falcons led 15-8 and the Rebels were struggling to get going when Jackie Johnson III sank a three-pointer to cut the Falcons’ lead to 15-11. The Rebels’ record for consecutive games with a three-pointer made rose to 1,189 with Johnson III’s three. EJ Harkless finished off a 6-0 run with a layup to reduce the Falcons’ lead to 15-14. With seven minutes remaining in the half, however, the Falcons answered with a 5-0 run that extended their lead to 20-14.
The Rebels went on a 9-0 run towards the end of the first half, ending it with consecutive three-pointers to give them a 23-20 lead. The Falcons finished the half on a 6-2 run to take a 26-25 lead into halftime. The Falcons were only able to make 36% from the field and 31% from three in the first half. That should suggest that the Rebels should be ahead at the break, but the Rebels themselves had shooting difficulties. The Falcons outscored the Rebels by one three-pointer and two free throws, which was the biggest difference in scoring.
Right after the break, Keshon Gilbert made a layup to give the Rebels a 27-26 lead. The Falcons quickly regained the lead, but Harkless quickly followed suit. The Falcons took a 38-31 lead, their largest of the game, with a 10-2 run in retaliation. Harkless then put his backpack on and scored nine straight points to tie the score at 40 with six minutes remaining in the half.
Nowell would make a layup to end an 11-2 run and give the Rebels a 42-40 lead. With less than two minutes to play, the Falcons retook the lead at 47-42 with a 7-0 run in response. Harkless reduced the Falcons’ lead to 47-45 with an “old school” three-point play. Following a Falcons score, Harkless produced another “old school” three-point play to reduce the Falcons’ lead to 49-48 with a minute left.
With 20 seconds left, Gilbert made a layup to reduce the Falcons’ lead to 51-50. On the following possession, the Rebels fouled, and the Falcons converted both of their free throw attempts. Nowell made a dunk to reduce the Falcons’ lead to 53-52 with less than ten seconds left. Near half court, the Falcons attempted to inbound the ball, but Johnson III intercepted the pass. Gilbert missed a layup after receiving it from him, but Harkless was there to tip it in to win the game.
Harkless said Johnson III made the big play and it just happened to be himself who scored the game winner.
“Me and Norwell both kind of crashed the boards and we knew one of us was going to come up with it,” Harkless said. “It just happened to be me.”
Due to Harkless’ performance, the Rebels were able to win despite making no three-pointers in the second half. The Runnin’ Rebels outscored Air Force by 12 points in the paint despite their poor shooting performance. The Falcons were only able to make 39% of their field goal attempts and 32% of their long-range attempts.
Kruger said Harkless’ second half was much better than the first, which led them to a win.
“He made some huge plays late,” Kruger said. “Not only did he have huge plays on the offensive end, but his impact defensively was key.”
- Guard EJ Harkless led all scorers with 23 points and had the game-winner. He also added seven rebounds, two assists, and three steals.
- Center David Muoka finished the night with seven points on 100% shooting. He also added five rebounds, one assists, and a game-high three blocks.
On March 1 at 8 p.m., the Rebels will celebrate Senior Night, the team’s final home game of the year, against the Utah State Aggies, who beat the Rebels earlier this season.
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