BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Sometimes a young team grows up in an early tournament. There is reason to believe that happened with UNLV in Brooklyn this time around. A night after the Runnin’ Rebels were humbled by Stanford, they used a strong second half to beat Temple 57-50 in the consolation game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
“It was a character win for us,” UNLV head coach Dave Rice said. “I think, certainly, with a new group the stage was pretty big last night and we got off to a tough start and we, quite frankly, panicked and tried to hit home runs.”
Even on Saturday night, the Runnin’ Rebels had to bounce back, as they stayed with Temple for much of the first half but still trailed at halftime. Right away, they came out strong in the second half, and Christian Wood led the way as they grabbed the lead and held on for the win.
UNLV was already going to be young this season, and they got younger for this season when Daquan Cook tore his ACL in August, forcing him to redshirt. Two of their upperclassmen are sitting out as transfers, so the six freshmen and three sophomores are going to play big roles in the aggregate on this team out of necessity.
Comparatively speaking, Wood is basically a seasoned veteran on this team, even more so because of the injury to Cook and other veterans sitting out. As such, he’ll be among those who have to lead them, and on Saturday night, he did that, especially in the second half. After he had just two points and three rebounds at the half, the 6’11” sophomore came alive and finished with a solid double-double of 18 points and 13 rebounds, making it two in as many nights and three in four games, and he also blocked four shots. At times, he carried them, and with his length and athleticism, he has that kind of potential.
“I thought his mentality was ‘I’m not going to let my team lose today,'” said Temple head coach Fran Dunphy.
Added senior guard Cody Doolin: “It was just the best I’ve seen him play. I haven’t played with him that long, but I just thought he was fantastic tonight.”
There is good talent among the freshmen. Rashad Vaughn is the most hyped of them, and rightly so, as he was a McDonald’s All-American. He was voted the Mountain West Preseason Freshman of the Year, so much is expected of him. He struggled in Brooklyn, shooting a combined 4-19 from the field, but it’s a long season yet and they played by far their two toughest opponents to date. Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan also come in with high regards, and the former has started all four games while the latter is a key reserve.
Besides them, Patrick McCaw made the big play late in Saturday night’s game. After a miss, a deep rebound got deflected towards mid-court. Temple tried to keep it alive, and had the inside track to get it, but they had to keep it over the midcourt line. McCaw raced in and poked the ball ahead, beat everyone to it and got a layup to put UNLV up by five with less than a minute to go. It was right after Temple had a possession where they could have tied it.
Rice said he felt pretty good about the team not long after Friday night’s loss. He felt they got focused on the next game quickly as they prepared, and they backed that up with their play on Saturday night.
There is a lot left of the season, and the Runnin’ Rebels youngsters have much more growing to do. The schedule will be tough, as it always is for this team, as they still host Arizona and America East contender Albany, play Utah at MGM Grand and have trips to Arizona State and Kansas aside from Mountain West play. What happened in Brooklyn will go a long way towards helping this team, especially since they grew in the two games here.