UNLV senior center Royce Hamm knew the score and situation. That North Dakota State could just as easily opt for a game-tying two-pointer instead of a game-winning 3-pointer at the end of their Monday night matchup.
So he monitored Dezmond McKinney as he bypassed the triple and beelined toward the basket. He abandoned the perimeter to stalk the Bison’s sophomore guard.
“I was like, ‘If I leave the shooter this time, I’ve got to make sure I get it,’” Hamm explained. “I just made sure I made a winning play for my team.”
Hamm exploded toward the rim as McKinney released the potential game-tying layup and volleyed the ball of the backboard in the waning seconds to preserve a 64-62 victory for UNLV and ensure the Rebels (3-0) would remain unbeaten for their matchup Friday against No. 4 Michigan.
The Texas transfer also added 17 rebounds and set crisp, sturdy ball screens down the stretch to free senior wing Bryce Hamilton, who scored a team-high 17 points. All three of UNLV’s victories are by six or fewer points. They are the kind of games that feel like March, according to junior wing Donovan Williams.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that right now.
“It’s not supposed to feel that way, but we are a new group. We’re trying to jell together. We’re trying to put the pieces together, figure out what works best, how to get wins,” said Williams, who had 15 points and two emphatic dunks. “Ultimately, we’re just proud that we’re able to come out and win these games. We could easily have come out 0-3 or 1-2.”
The Rebels are still very much a work in progress, and that figures to be the case for quite some time. But they continue to remain disciplined in their man-to-man defense and have manufactured just enough offense to win their first three games. Hamm protected the rim, and the brigade of guards and wings forced drivers toward the sideline or the baseline.
Kickout passes yielded open triples for North Dakota State (2-1), but the Bison struggled to convert and finished 9-for-28 from 3-point range.
Senior point guard Jordan McCabe scored 13 for the Rebels and helped engineer quality looks in their ball-screen centric offense. He ceded ball-handling duties to Hamilton down the stretch, and the shifty California native scored eight points in the final 4:58.
UNLV coach Kevin Kruger knows the Rebels need to be more efficient on offense — they shot 41.3 percent from the field and missed 15 of 19 from 3-point range. But “the pace and the flow has been better. It’s gotten progressively better throughout the game,” Kruger said.
“Having a solid trust with each other defensively can give us an opportunity every night,” he added. “We still haven’t shot it anywhere near what I think these guys are capable of and what I think they’ll get to eventually.”