Senior forward Victor Iwuakor’s swat with 3:21 remaining in UNLV’s 74-63 win against Southern Mississippi on Thursday night triggered the fast break.
A tidal wave of gray jerseys began to roar down the court. Fifth-year guard EJ Harkless was the first to the ball, grabbing it near halfcourt and driving toward the basket. He had Rebels running on either side of him, and Iwuakor trailing the play, but Harkless chose to go it alone.
The last Golden Eagles defender bit on his Euro step. Harkless gently laid the ball in to extend the Rebels’ lead to 11, and drew contact for the and-one. He punched the air as he landed, before chest-bumping someone from the crowd in jubilation.
“That was big Elijah (Rutledge) man; he’s our (team) manager,” Harkless said. “He works hard every day, comes in and brings great energy for us. He’s somebody that specifically helps me out every game. He’s just genuine and I love that man. I was glad he got a moment like that.”
Harkless’ late layup helped UNLV bounce back from its first loss of the season to beat Southern Mississippi 74-63 Thursday at the Thomas &Mack Center in the Rebels’ final nonconference game of the season. Harkless led the way with 19 points, senior Luis Rodriguez scored 18 and UNLV will enter Mountain West play with an 11-1 record.
UNLV begins conference play on the road against San Jose State at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“The way the guys adjusted, responded, didn’t let San Francisco beat us twice, I’m really happy and proud of them,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said.
The Rebels got off to a slow start Thursday. UNLV struggled to score around the rim, and committed 10 turnovers in the first half, led by Iwuakor and sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert who each had three.
Rodriguez was the lone UNLV scorer in double figures during the first half. He had 11 points and was 3 of 5 from 3-point range. The former Mississippi wing finished 5 of 8 from beyond the arc.
“It’s just about having clean opportunities,” Kruger said. “I think (Rodriguez) has taken full advantage of those opportunities, hit a couple huge ones tonight.”
Despite missing forward Elijah Parquet because of a knee injury, the Rebels’ defense caused the Golden Eagles (11-2) problems all game. UNLV forced 12 turnovers in the first half and came close to creating several others.
Kruger emphasized activity on defense entering the game. The coach said UNLV had 25 deflections, and the Golden Eagles finished with 25 turnovers.
But Southern Mississippi didn’t go away. The Golden Eagles punished the Rebels’ desire to guard the perimeter with well-timed backdoor cuts. They went 12 of 17 from inside the 3-point line during the first 20 minutes to take a one-point lead into halftime.
The Golden Eagles got out to a better start to the second half, too, but UNLV stormed back. Harkless rebounded from a quiet first 20 minutes to score 15 of his 19 points, driving the lane and drawing fouls.
“Everybody had to play better in the second half because they came out and hit us in the mouth pretty good,” Harkless said. “They were confident, came into our place confident and we didn’t like that feeling.”
A Harkless layup with 13:26 remaining gave UNLV its first lead since the first half. On the Rebels’ next possession, fifth-year guard Jordan McCabe made an extra pass off a kickout to find Rodriguez alone in the corner for a 3, forcing the Golden Eagles to take a timeout.
Harkless free throws with 9:32 left on the clock capped a 15-0 run, with UNLV preventing Southern Mississippi from scoring for almost 5½ minutes. It was just enough of a buffer for the Rebels to secure the win.
“We got on a run in the second half and that was big time,” Harkless said. “That was a big step forward for us.”
Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at email@example.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.