Las Vegas, NV — The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and Akron Zips faced off at Thomas and Mack Center Tuesday night. The Rebels rode a hot-shooting first half (53.3% from the floor and 58.3% from 3) to build a 41-31 lead and snapped their two-game losing streak and improve to 3-3, winning 72-70. The Zips never had a lead larger than two points and dropped their third straight, falling to 4-3.
For UNLV, fifth-year guard Luis Rodriguez led the way in the first half with 10 points on near-perfect shooting, only missing one shot from the floor and knocking down two triples. Rodriguez also pulled down two rebounds and had an assist and a steal. Junior guard Jackie Johnson III came off the bench and provided instant offense, scoring nine points on 3-of-4 shooting (one made three-pointer) and an assist. Freshman guard Dedan Thomas Jr. showed why he was the No. 33 player in the class of 2023 (according to 247Sports) and the only top-100 recruit to commit to a Mountain West school, scoring eight points and dishing out three assists.
For Akron, the duo of fifth-year senior and small forward Mikal Dawson and senior center Enrique Freeman combined for 19 points in the first half. Dawson made all of Akron’s three-point attempts (3-of-6 as a team), while Freeman had a team-high 10 points. The Zips needed every point from their star players and even cut UNLV’s lead down to four points multiple times but could not string together enough defensive stops.
Freeman and Dawson continued their strong starts for Akron, but only one other player (senior forward Sammy Hunter, 15 points) finished in double figures. Freeman, who was fourth in the nation in rebounding average last season (11.9 RPG), finished with a double-double – 22 points and 13 rebounds on 9-of-17 shooting and three blocks. Dawson made another two shots, including another three-pointer to finish with 14. Hunter did all he could to will the Zips back in it, going on a personal 8-0 run in 30 seconds, but fell short.
Thomas Jr. (12 points), Rodriguez (13 points), Kalib Boone (12 points) and Johnson III (11 points) all finished in double figures for the Runnin’ Rebels. Boone in particular stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and four blocks.
There were only a combined five free-throw attempts by both teams in the first half, but the two teams combined for 13 in the second half. UNLV’s hot shooting from beyond the arc cooled down (2-of-8 in the second half) but the Rebels used their presence in the paint (40 points) to sustain their lead. Akron cut the lead to two with 48.5 seconds half and had a chance to tie or take the lead, but Dawson missed a three-pointer and Thomas Jr. secured the rebound. He would get fouled immediately and missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Akron could not get a shot off after securing the rebound.
Both teams are heading to Ohio for their next game. The Rebels will travel to Dayton next Wednesday to take on the Flyers at 6:00 p.m. PST, while the Zips will be at home to take on Bradley at 7 p.m. local time.