Hopeful UNLV fans saw the best version of the Runnin’ Rebels in Saturday’s season opener.
The newly constructed home team ran Florida A&M out of the Thomas & Mack Center, and all the pieces fit together. Point guard Jordan Johnson, finally unbridled after sitting out a transfer year, zipped around the court and dished out assists. The twin tower tandem of freshman Brandon McCoy and junior Shakur Juiston combined to play volleyball on the offensive glass. Senior scoring savant Jovan Mooring nailed deep 3-pointers with his trademark casual flick of the wrist.
The final result was a dominant 108-66 victory and a re-energized program that can set its sights a little higher this season.
The game was never close. UNLV rolled out to a 28-8 lead and built a 56-27 advantage by halftime, and the Rebels played an aggressive style of defense that forced 16 turnovers and held FAMU to 33.3 percent from the field for the game.
It was Marvin Menzies’ vision of a Mountain West contender come to life. Of course, it comes with a huge, obvious caveat — Florida A&M is not a Mountain West-caliber team, and the Rebels are going to face much tougher competition along the way.
But as far as opening-night parties go, this one was pretty fun.
“I’m pleased with the result first, and then also the effort,” Menzies said. “I thought that was important that we come out and show the fans how hard we’re going to play.”
Johnson, as will be his responsibility this season, was the catalyst. The 5-foot-9 senior opened the game with tremendous energy, pushing the pace at every opportunity and handing out eight assists in the first half alone.
McCoy was the recipient of several of Johnson’s pinpoint passes, although there were times it seemed like McCoy didn’t need anyone’s help to get a good look at the basket. The 7-foot freshman was often his own facilitator, as he grabbed nine offensive rebounds, many of which led to second-chance points.
In his freshman debut—in which he was supposed to be limited to 20 minutes or so due to ankle soreness—McCoy finished with a monster double-double of 25 points and 18 rebounds in 23 minutes.
Juiston also made a killing in the paint. The 6-foot-8 junior-college transfer posted 19 points and 10 rebounds while making 9-of-11 shots from the field.
McCoy and Juiston combined for 28 rebounds and 11 offensive boards as UNLV out-rebounded FAMU by a 54-40 margin.
McCoy said he believes rebounding can be a strength for UNLV all season, especially with Juiston pushing him.
“Shakur is a great competitor," McCoy said. "In practice, he kills us—me, Cheickna [Dembele], Mbacke [Diong], all of us—in rebounds. So I feel like Shakur pushes me to another level and I really appreciate that from him because he’s like a dog when it comes to rebounds. Me and him competing to get rebounds, a friendly competition, it helps in the long run.”
While the newcomers stole the show on opening night, Mooring also had his time to shine. Playing mostly off the ball in deference to Johnson, the returning senior nailed 5-of-8 from 3-point range and scored 21 points on just 10 shot attempts. That kind of efficiency wasn’t Mooring’s calling card last season, when he shot 37.4 percent from the field.
Now, flanked by a more talented supporting cast, Mooring can ideally settle into being a true No. 1 scoring option. On Saturday, he recorded a team-best plus/minus of +43 in just 24 minutes.
Mooring was around for last year’s 11-21 campaign, however, so he wasn’t ready to sing the praises of this year’s team just yet.
“It definitely was a different feeling in the locker room tonight,” Mooring said. “It’s just one of 30 though.”
“We didn’t play perfect tonight,” he continued. “You all saw highlights and everything, but once you look at the stat sheet and look at the film, you realize how ugly the game actually was. But I think we’ll go back and watch film and I think we’ll fix everything on Wednesday.”
Wednesday is when Prairie View A&M comes to town for game No. 2, and considering the strength of the opposition and the state of the revitalized Rebels, the party should continue.