As recently as a month ago, Elijah Mitrou-Long’s final college campaign wasn’t going according to plan. Like most grad transfers, he expected to come to UNLV and play a leading role while enjoying every second of his swan-song season.
It didn’t quite work out that way, but with the 2019-20 season drawing to an end, Mitrou-Long finds himself exactly where he wants to be — making plays and winning games.
On Saturday it was Mitrou-Long scoring a team-high 19 points to help lead UNLV to its biggest victory in years, 66-63 at No. 4 San Diego State. It was the latest in a recent string of quality performances by the 6-foot-1 guard from Alberta, Canada — a surge that has coincided with UNLV’s ascension toward contender status in the Mountain West.
UNLV head coach T.J. Otzelberger has been more than happy to ride Mitrou-Long’s hot hand down the stretch.
“I knew he had it in him,” Otzelberger said. “Although he has exceeded expectations in certain areas, it’s something we knew he was capable of doing. That’s why we brought him in here, so it’s really gratifying to see him step up.”
Mitrou-Long got off to an uneven start this season, like the team itself. He opened the year as UNLV’s starter at point guard and averaged 12.9 points over the first nine contests while shooting 44.4 percent, but the team was disjointed at both ends of the floor and stumbled to a 3-6 record.
Even when Mitrou-Long exploded for 29 points in an overtime loss to Cincinnati on Nov. 30, it came with a heavy dose of bad news; he suffered a broken bone in his hand in a subsequent practice, an injury that sidelined him for nearly two months.
Instead of a victory lap of a season, Mitrou-Long sat on the bench in a cast, watching as the last games of his career slipped away.
He also watched as his starting job slipped away. Sophomore Marvin Coleman stepped into the backcourt in Mitrou-Long’s absence and became a fan favorite, leading the Rebels to a 6-1 start in conference play.
Shortly before Mitrou-Long was set to return, Otzelberger announced that the team would stick with Coleman as the starter, casting Mitrou-Long in a reserve role.
“I told him, ‘This is how the team has evolved and this is where we’re at,’" Otzelberger said. “Even though he was the starting point guard, that was not something we needed now. I told him, ‘Here’s the qualities we need: someone who can defend the dribble, make plays and provide leadership.’ He assured me that’s what he was going to do and he was going to give it everything he had. He was clear with that.”
It was a big moment for the Rebels, possibly the watershed event of the season. Had Mitrou-Long resisted the benching and made waves, it could have exploded the team’s chemistry just as UNLV appeared to be hitting its stride.
The move didn’t come as a surprise to Mitrou-Long, and though his senior campaign was on the verge of turning into a nightmare, he never considered sulking or alienating teammates by making them choose sides.
“I kind of already knew,” Mitrou-Long said. “We were winning, so I couldn’t really be mad at that. I could only be happy for my guys because I go to war with them every day and I want to win just as much as they do. It would be selfish of me to come back and say I need to start and I need this and I need that. I accepted my role and to be honest I feel like I’m in a better place.”
Mitrou-Long has come off the bench for each of the past eight games since returning from injury, and after an adjustment period he is now playing the best basketball of his career. Over the last three contests (all wins), he has averaged 17.3 points while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from 3-point range. He has also provided lock-down defense with eight steals.
His star-level play has made it possible for UNLV’s four-guard lineups to thrive, ushering in a strategic shift that has turned around the Rebels’ season.
Otzelberger believes that sitting out approximately a third of the schedule forced Mitrou-Long to confront his basketball mortality and sparked him to seize the day.
“What happened, to me, is that sense of urgency kicked in for Elijah,” Otzelberger said. “Things were starting to click with our team and then it was taken away from him. He had a lot of time to reflect and think about the opportunity in front of him, and his urgency upon his return has been totally different.”
Mitrou-Long has certainly thrown himself into the middle of the Rebels’ push for the finish line. Though he is still coming off the bench behind Coleman, he is playing so well that Otzelberger can hardly take him off the court. Mitrou-Long’s minutes have steadily ticked up since his return, and over the last three games he has shouldered a starter’s workload of 31 minutes per contest.
Mitrou-Long came to UNLV with the idea of being the starting point guard, but he has fully embraced his current role as the ultimate X-factor.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re starting, if you’re a sixth man, seventh man — if you’re producing, you’re producing,” Mitrou-Long said. “That’s what coaches want and that’s what I’m doing. My teammates have done a great job of helping me do that, because it’s not just me. That’s what it comes down to, having confidence in yourself and believing it will work out.”
Mitrou-Long has also made it a priority to mentor Coleman in hopes that he can extend his impact on the UNLV program beyond his shortened senior season.
“Marvin was always the first dude to cheer for me whenever I made a good play. A kid like that who is humble and hungry, you can’t do anything but give him respect.
“He’s going to be here next year,” Mitrou-Long continued. “I’ll be gone, but he’ll still be a big part of this program, so this is good for him to learn and get this experience.”
It’s been a trying year for Mitrou-Long, but if he and the Rebels can maintain their current level of play for another two weeks, he’s got a chance to be remembered by UNLV fans for more than the 20-something games he’ll end up playing in the scarlet and gray.
“Oftentimes when you’re a grad transfer, you just want to be left alone to do your thing and play the games and go from there,” Otzelberger said. “For Elijah, that wasn’t the deal. He has embraced it and thrived, and I think the fans will remember that he’s been a key part of some big wins.”