UNLV could not overcome a poor shooting performance and its offensive struggles against No. 2 UCLA, falling to the Bruins 73-51 Saturday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center.
After a dominant win earlier in the week as a tune-up for the highly anticipated matchup, the Runnin’ Rebels were outmatched against one of the top teams in the country.
“That obviously was not the result that we wanted, but also probably not the fight that we expected,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “I feel bad for the guys as we didn’t play like we practiced. We just seemed a little hesitant and put ourselves in a hole early and you could see the confidence that they had and they were playing with.”
UCLA took an early 14-2 lead as UNLV missed seven straight shots, after making the game’s first basket.
UNLV slowly began to chip away from UCLA’s lead. Keshon Gilbert came off the bench and made an immediate impact with three rebounds and three assists that helped the Runnin’ Rebels go on a 12-4 run to cut the Bruin lead to 18-14 midway through the first half.
Bryce Hamilton brought everyone at the Thomas & Mack Center to their feet as he knocked down a 3-pointer and made a transition dunk that made the UCLA lead 22-19. But that would be the closest UNLV would be the rest of the game.
The Bruins went on a 15-3 run to close the first half and take a 37-22 lead into the locker room. UCLA made 6-of-11 3-pointers in the first half while limiting UNLV to 3-of-15 shooting from behind the arc. Overall, the Bruins outshot the Runnin’ Rebels in the first half 52.2% to 28.1%.
In the second half, UNLV battled back to cut the deficit to single digits, 46-37. But a nearly seven-minute scoring drought saw the UCLA lead grow to as high as 21 at the under-eight media timeout and UNLV could not dig itself out of the large deficit.
“(UCLA) just played their style of defense,” junior forward Donovan Williams said. “Ultimately, they came out and executed, offensively and defensively, better than we did. They stayed in front, they stayed in gaps. For us, the challenge was creating better shots that we got.”
UCLA used its length and athleticism to force UNLV into tough situations and to take challenging shots. The Bruins also limited fast break points (5) for the Runnin’ Rebels and made it difficult to drive to the basket.
UNLV finished the game shooting 6-of-27 (22.2%) from 3-point range and 17-of-56 (30.4%) overall from the field. Hamilton and Williams lead the way for UNLV with 15 and 12 points, respectively. Both were finished with 40% shooting from the field.
Kruger gave credit to UCLA’s defense for limiting UNLV’s shooting but also felt like there were shots and moments where his team tried to do too much, which made it more challenging for the Runnin’ Rebels to come back.
“I think we started to press a little bit and even though we had some moments where we really did fight and compete, even right out of the half to cut it to nine, we just couldn’t sustain it,” Kruger said.
On its 17 made field goals, UNLV had 12 assists. Kruger said there were times where he wished they had made an extra pass or drive that would have created a better shot. And Hamilton shared similar sentiments, noting that passing is key to UNLV’s shooting success.
“I feel like we are a good shooting team,” Hamilton, who led UNLV in scoring with 15 points, said. “The more passes, the more we drive and create for each other we get better, open shots and we’ll start knocking them down.”
UNLV has now lost three of its last four games after starting 3-0. Those three losses have all been to teams that will be in, or on the bubble, for the NCAA Tournament in March. While the loss is a tough one for UNLV, Kruger felt there is still an opportunity to learn from the defeat.
“This will be a really good opportunity for us to break down the film with the guys and show them what worked because I think we’re capable of playing a lot better and being stubborn in getting better looks,” Kruger said. Again, that’s a tried and true established program and they just made it tough for us today.”
UNLV will make its first true road trip of the season this week when they travel to Dallas to face SMU on Wednesday, Dec. 1 at 5 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.
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