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Jalen Poyser

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UNLV wasn’t perfect in its 92-66 exhibition win over New Mexico Highlands on Friday, and in his post-game press conference, coach Marvin Menzies rattled off a number of areas where the team didn’t quite play up to his standards. But he did seem satisfied that the Rebels had met his single most important criteria for the game: Improvement.

The Rebels played better than they did in Tuesday’s win over Dakota Wesleyan, and for Menzies, that outweighed the problem areas like turnovers and defensive rebounding.

“There’s so much more to learn and there’s so much room to get better,” Menzies said. “We’ve just got to grow. We’ve got to get better, got to get better, got to get better. Every practice, every film session, every game, every opportunity that they’re together as a family, they’ve got to get better. That’s kind of going to be the mantra for the year.”

The Rebels dominated from the start on Friday, shooting 47.1 percent over the first 20 minutes while forcing New Mexico Highlands into 11 turnovers en route to a 49-34 halftime lead. Sophomores Kris Clyburn and Jalen Poyser were again the catalysts, with Clyburn especially bringing a high energy level to the early part of the contest. Clyburn finished with 15 points, four steals, four rebounds and two blocks, while Poyser led the team with 21 points and five assists.

After going 2-0 in exhibition play, UNLV now has a full week to get ready for next Friday’s regular-season opener against South Alabama.

A few quick thoughts on the victory:

Clyburn brings the heat
If you just watched Kris Clyburn on Friday, you would have thought the Rebels were playing in the Sweet 16, not a meaningless exhibition in a mostly empty arena. That’s the level of intensity that Clyburn brought to the proceedings, and for the second straight game, the rangy swingman made an impact across the board.

He didn’t shoot well, as he finished just 6-of-16 from the floor thanks to a few close-range misses, but he contributed a ton via energy plays. Clyburn racked up four steals in 25 minutes, giving him nine total thefts across 59 exhibition minutes, and he blocked a pair of shots, showing the athleticism that made him an intriguing addition out of junior college.

Clyburn still has to prove he’s skilled enough to be a top-end starter in the Mountain West—we simply won’t know that until we see him play against better competition. But one aspect of his game that absolutely will translate is his energy, and that’s going to be valuable to the Rebels when the real games begin.

Protecting the paint
UNLV has the potential to be a good defensive team this season, and while the Rebels aren’t there yet, Friday’s showing was a step in the right direction, as they limited New Mexico Highlands to 35.1-percent shooting and a minuscule 0.750 points per possession.

Clyburn led the charge on the perimeter, and freshman Troy Baxter added an element of rim protection with six blocks in just 18 minutes. For the game, UNLV forced 27 turnovers on 88 defensive possessions.

Not everything was rosy on that end of the floor, however. Even with Clyburn swiping so many balls and Baxter swatting away so many shots, New Mexico Highlands still managed to tally 32 points in the paint, a total that almost equaled UNLV’s 34. Interior defense was an issue against Dakota Wesleyan as well, and if these two teams were able to exploit it, that doesn’t bode well for the Rebels once they start facing Division I competition.

The hope is that getting junior forward Dwayne Morgan (hip) and freshman center Cheickna Dembele (heel) back from injury will help shore up the paint, but it remains to be seen how long it will take them to get up to speed and what kind of impact they’ll have.

Offense in sync
Poyser led the Rebels with 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting, but he had plenty of help as five other players finished in double figures on the night. As a team, UNLV shot 47.1 percent in the first half, including 6-of-13 from 3-point range, and New Mexico Highlands simply couldn’t keep up.

UNLV once again pushed the pace, racking up 88 possessions and totaling 12 fast-break points. In the two exhibition games, the Rebels averaged 86.5 possessions, which would have been the fastest pace in the country last year by more than three possessions.

The offensive assault was aided by accurate 3-point shooting (at least in the first half). Four different players cashed in from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes, as Tyrell Green (2-of-2), Poyser (2-of-5), Uche Ofoegbu (1-of-1) and Clyburn (1-of-4) took turns scorching the net. UNLV needs all four of those players to connect at an above-average rate this season, so Friday’s shooting gallery was a promising sign.

“If you can’t make that 3-ball, that’s going to be a challenge for you,” Menzies said after the game. “Luckily we’ve got some guys at multiple positions that have that versatility that will be able to use that tool for us.”

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