Men’s Hoops: Big win for Boylen’s Utes

Grit and toughness — that’s all Utah head coach Jim Boylen has asked of his team this season. On Wednesday night, guard Johnnie Bryant brought the grit and center Luke Nevill provided the toughness.

Nevill scored six of his season-high 26 points during a crucial 90-second stretch in the second half and led the Utes to a much-needed 81-73 conference win over the league-leading UNLV Rebels. Bryant matched his teammate with a season-high 26 points of his own, including 16 in the first half, as Utah broke a five-game losing streak to the Rebels.

“We have to play with grit and play with toughness,” Boylen said. “I thought we handled adversity better tonight.”

The win for the Utes (13-8, 4-4 MWC) signals the first time their conference record has been at .500 or better this late in the season since 2005. After jumping out to a 9-2 lead early, the Rebels (17-5, 6-2) were taken out of what has made them successful for much of the season.

“It’s a big win for us,” Boylen said. “I think this was a big win for where we want to go. It’s a step in the process.”

The Rebels have thrived on forcing teams into turning the ball over this season. They have also flourished with the proficient scoring of Wink Adams. Against Utah, the Rebels didn’t get much of either.

UNLV forced Utah into just nine turnovers, and Adams finished the first half scoreless after getting just one shot attempt.

“The things that we practiced didn’t carry over to the game,” UNLV’s Matt Shaw said. “It’s tough to win without Wink.”

Still, without its primary weapons, UNLV kept things close at halftime behind a solid 6-for-12 shooting effort from beyond the 3-point line. Utah’s 3-point defense — which is tops in the MWC-was the focal point of Utah’s halftime adjustment.

With Utah holding a slim 37-35 lead at the break, the Utes allowed UNLV to shoot just 3-for-12 from beyond the arc for the rest of the game. Utah also found a way to bypass UNLV’s stingy perimeter defense to find its 7-foot-1 center in the post. Nevill answered with 18 second-half points and three crucial offensive rebounds and was equally effective on the defensive end.

“Nevill is a big target and a good player,” UNLV head coach Lon Kruger said. “In the second half, we didn’t do what we did in the first half to keep the ball away from him.”

With all that Utah was doing right, UNLV still managed to keep things close behind the resurgent effort of Adams and the consistent play of Joe Darger and Curtis Terry. UNLV took a brief 50-49 lead with 13:02 remaining in the game before a Lawrence Bohra 3-pointer sparked a 10-0 Ute run that put them on top for good. However, that didn’t stop UNLV from making things interesting.

The Rebels managed to cut Utah’s 71-62 lead at the 3:04 mark down to two points with 40 seconds remaining. With Utah holding a slim 75-73 lead, UNLV put guard Luka Drca on the free-throw line in a familiar situation.

Against BYU on Jan. 19, Drca missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with one minute remaining and Utah down by a single point.

This time, Drca made his trip to the free-throw line count. After Drca sank both attempts, UNLV could not covert on a 3-point attempt by Terry and were forced to play the fouling game until time expired.

The loss dropped UNLV out of first place in the MWC, while the win moved Utah into a three-way tie for fifth place. (NOTE: PENDING SDSU’s WIN OVER AIR FORCE).

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