Instant analysis:

Donovan Williams scores 29 to lead UNLV to first league win


Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels forward Donovan Williams (3) lays up the ball over San Diego Toreros guard T.J. Berger (20) during the first half of an NCAA basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.

Tue, Jan 11, 2022 (10:26 p.m.)

UNLV picked up its first Mountain West victory on Tuesday, as Kevin Kruger’s squad shook off the rust from a 10-day break to top New Mexico, 85-56, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

It was as impressive as the Scarlet and Gray have looked all season, with Donovan Williams scoring a game-high 29 points and the team defense holding the Lobos to 34.5% shooting.

A look at how UNLV was able to improve to 9-6 overall and 1-1 in conference play:

No COVID concerns

As recently as 24 hours before tipoff, we weren’t sure what UNLV was going to look like in this game, as the program had been hit hard by a COVID-19 surge that postponed one contest and forced the team to largely go remote for 10 days. Which players would be available? How many minutes would they have to play? How drastically would it impact Kevin Kruger’s strategy?

The answer to those questions became apparent early, as UNLV was entirely unaffected. Every player was healthy and available (save for injured center James Hampshire), Kruger was able to go with his usual starting lineup, and everyone played within their normal range of minutes.

That’s good news for UNLV, as it seems the team’s COVID concerns are a thing of the past. We may see a player or two test positive here or there over the next two months, but nothing on a scale that could cause additional games to be rescheduled (whether or not contests are postponed due to COVID outbreaks within other programs is another story).

All things considered, the past 10 days of upheaval probably ended up being the best-case scenario. UNLV appears no worse for wear and can concentrate on the remaining 15 games on the schedule.

Williams stays hot

The 10-day break between games did nothing to cool off Donovan Williams. The junior wing nailed his first eight shots from the field and finished with a game-high 29 points, further entrenching him as the team’s clear-cut No. 2 scoring option.

Williams did it in a variety of ways. He scored off the dribble, he hit spot-up 3-pointers, he cut off the ball and he threw down a nasty alley-oop dunk (on a feed from Bryce Hamilton). It marks the fifth straight game Williams has scored in double figures, and he’s shooting 37-of-60 during that stretch (good for a scorching 61.7%).

On a team that isn’t loaded with scorers, Williams’ emergence has been one of the most positive developments this season. He’s now averaging 13.9 points per game, and as Tuesday’s performance showed, Williams is capable of stepping forward and picking up the slack when No. 1 option Hamilton needs some help (17 points, 5-of-17 FGs).

Defense locks in

New Mexico is not a good team, but one thing the Lobos can do is score the ball (79.4 points per game, 37th in the nation). So it was encouraging to see UNLV buckle down on the defensive end and hold the visitors to their lowest point total of the season.

It started from the opening tip, as UNLV kept New Mexico off the scoreboard for the first five minutes, allowing the Scarlet and Gray to jump out to a 12-0 lead. UNM leading scorers Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jalen House combined for just 19 points on 7-of-21 shooting, while UNLV held the Lobos to 28.0% in the second half.

And unlike their last game, in which they played defense against San Diego State but couldn't get enough rebounds to make it count, the Scarlet and Gray finished off possessions; they allowed UNM to grab just three offensive rebounds on 36 missed shots.

If UNLV can continue to force misses and collect the strays, they'll have a chance in the rematch at San Diego State on Tuesday. Before that can happen, however, UNLV will host Fresno State on Friday.

This game was covered remotely.

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