Jim Boylen wasn't about to pronounce it a "signature win," but the Utah coach couldn't have been much happier about his team's 81-73 victory over Mountain West Conference co-leader UNLV.
The Utes did pretty much everything right Wednesday night at the Huntsman Center as they improved to 4-4 in MWC play and 13-8 on the season, while the Rebels fell to 6-2 and 17-5.
The Utes shot just under 50 percent from the field. They had just nine turnovers against a team that was forcing 17 per game. They held UNLV's best player scoreless in the first half and to 11 points for the game. They had 22 assists on their 26 made baskets. And they even hit their free throws down the stretch, sinking 10 straight in the final two minutes and 23 of 28 overall.
"That's a big win for our program," Boylen said. "I think that's a very good team we beat."
Luke Nevill and Johnnie Bryant were the perfect inside-outside combination as each scored 26 points, season highs for both.
Nevill scored 18 points in the second half, including 12 straight Ute points over a six-minute stretch late in the game. On the night he sank 11-of-14 shots from the field and 4-of-6 from the foul line.
Bryant made 8-of-13 shots from the field, including three 3-pointers and a perfect 7-of-7 from the free-throw line.
"I'm proud of my team," Boylen continued. "We've been close before, we've been in big games before but haven't made a play here or a play there. I thought we made some plays and made our free throws."
Boylen said he put pressure on his team to get to .500 in league play for the first time in three seasons, and his team responded.
"I thought we followed the game plan," he said. "I thought we handled adversity better tonight."
One of the keys to the win was holding UNLV leading scorer Wink Adams, who was coming off 24- and 25-point games last week, to just 11 points, including just one shot in the first half.
Former Riverton High star Joe Darger led the Rebels with 18 points, while Curtis Terry scored 14 and Rene Rougeau had 12.
"They had their way and did what they had to do," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "We couldn't keep the ball out of Nevill's hands. Utah was very, very good. But we didn't respond like we had to."
Early on, the Utes looked a big sluggish as they fell behind 9-2 and trailed 23-17 late in the first half. That's when Bryant sparked the Utes by scoring nine points in a three-minute span to put the Utes up 30-29 on their way to a 37-35 halftime lead.
The Utes were trailing 50-49 with 12:56 left when they ran off 10 straight points as Lawrence Borha sank a three and a pair of free throws, Bryant made a three-point play, and Nevill made a dunk off a nice assist by Shaun Green.
That's when Boylen hurt his team, getting a technical foul when Nevill was called for a foul when it appeared Terry just fell down. Adams made two free throws, and the Rebels scored quickly off the inbounds play to cut the lead to five.
The Utes couldn't shake the Rebels and with 37 seconds left, UNLV cut the lead to two at 75-73 on a basket by Terry.
UNLV immediately fouled Luka Drca, a smart move considering the Serbian had missed late free throws in three straight losses last month.
However, Drca stepped up and swished both free throws and two more 12 seconds later after Terry missed a three.
"I'm happy for Luka Drca he's been in that situation before and he made four in a row tonight and did a heck of a job," Boylen said.
As happy as Boylen was with the victory, he's not satisfied.
"It's one win," he said. "We are a growing, developing, learning group of guys in a new system. We just have to keep growing.The Utes head back out on the road for a game Saturday afternoon in Colorado Springs against Air Force.