Runnin’ Rebels stay alive, beat Air Force in overtime

Source: Eric Draper/Associated Press

After a disappointing regular season, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels earned the seventh seed in the Mountain West conference tournament, drawing a matchup with the Air Force Falcons in the first round. With a score of 78-70, UNLV defeated Air Force and advance to face the Boise State Broncos in the second round.

Prior to the game, the Rebels received some good and bad news. EJ Harkless made the the All-Mountain West Second Team after a fantastic season. The bad news was that Keshon Gilbert was suspended for the game against Air Force.

After the game, head coach Kevin Kruger said the main thing he would tell his players is to get off their feet.

“Get their post-game rehab that they need to get ready for tomorrow,” Kruger said. “It’s going to be a tough physical game and we’ll have to be at the top of our game.”

The Falcons took the lead right away with a 5-1 run to start the game. Jordan McCabe, who was starting in Gilbert’s place for the Rebels, stopped the Falcons’ momentum with a three-pointer. The Rebels’ NCAA record for consecutive games with a made three was extended by McCabe’s make to 1,192. A David Muoka dunk capped a 10-0 run later in the half and made the score 11-5 in favor of the Rebels. The Falcons would respond with an 11-4 run, cutting the Rebels’ lead to 16-15 with five minutes left in the half.

Harkless made back-to-back baskets to extend the Rebels’ lead to 21-15. The Falcons struck back with a 7-0 run to take the lead 22-21. Cameron Bruist made a three-pointer to give the Rebels a 24-22 advantage going into the break.

Although the Rebels’ offense struggled and they only managed a 31% field goal percentage, Harkless and Jackie Johnson III’s combined 12 points were enough to give the Rebels the lead at the half. The Falcons were held to just 35% from the field and 30% from three-point range by the Rebels’ defense.

Kruger said the Falcons defense did a great job on them, but they’d have to keep improving.

“The challenge is to cut and to keep moving,” Kruger said. “They’re staying back and making us make plays.”

The Falcons came out of the break on fire and went on a 7-0 run to take the lead. The Runnin’ Rebels responded to the 7-0 run from Air Force with an 8-0 run to take back the lead.

The Falcons went on a 14-7 run to tie the game at 50 with four minutes left in the half. A layup by Luis Rodriguez gave the Rebels a 52-50 advantage. The Falcons came back with a 7-2 run to take the lead with two minutes to play. Harkless made a layup to reduce the Falcons’ lead and was then fouled with 20 seconds left with a chance to win the game or tie. Harkless split the free throws and tied the game at 57.

In the Rebels’ opening possession of overtime, Harkless made a three-pointer to continue his hot shooting. Rodriguez made a layup to give the Rebels a 67-62 lead with two minutes remaining in overtime. With just one minute on the clock, Justin Webster made a three-pointer that gave the Rebels a 71-64 lead which proved to be the dagger. The Rebels won 78-70 thanks to some late-game free throws. They completed a season sweep of the Falcons and continued their perfect record in the Mountain West Tournament against them.

Kruger said Harkless was unbelievable in the contest.

“He was really good, especially when we drew some ruts offensively,” Kruger said.

Key Performers 

  • Elijah Harkless led all scorers with 35 points. He also tallied six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. 
  • Luis Rodriguez finished the game with 10 points, 11 rebounds, and one assist off the bench. 
  • Center David Muoka led all players with five blocks. 

The Rebels take on the Boise State Broncos on Thursday for their third matchup for the year. The Broncos prevailed in each of the first two games, The game will kick off at 6 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center.

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