Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels guard Justin Webster (2) reacts after sinking a 3-point basket against the Dayton Flyers during the second half of an NCAA basketball game at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.

San Diego — 

At one point in the second half of UNLV’s 95-78 pummeling of San Diego on Saturday, senior guard Justin Webster found himself having an unusual conversation.

A friend of his who happens to play for San Diego sidled up to him during a free-throw break and gave it to Webster straight.

“He was like, ‘Bro, y’all defense is just annoying. We don’t know what to do. Y’all going to be a good team,’” Webster said.

That has to be music to Kevin Kruger’s ears, as “annoying” has become an unofficial team slogan during UNLV’s 8-0 start to the season. And the Scarlet and Gray did it again against San Diego in their first true road game, pestering the Toreros into 18 turnovers and converting them into 31 fast-break points.

UNLV shot the ball with precision up and down the roster, as seven players made at least one 3-pointer, led by Webster’s 4-of-4 performance from deep. But as usual, it was the defense that ignited everything — including Webster’s uncommon in-game dialogue.

Webster, who finished with 16 points, said he was pleasantly surprised to receive confirmation that UNLV’s game plan was having the desired effect on the opposition.

“Him acknowledging it just made me feel good,” he said. “As a team that’s all we try to do is be annoying — get a lot of deflections, get a lot of steals, take a lot of charges and run.”

Deflections, steals, charges and running is basically how UNLV went on a 21-2 run to seize control of the game midway through the first half. Senior center David Muoka blocked a shot and threw down a pair of dunks during that stretch, while senior guard E.J. Harkless and sophomore guard Jackie Johnson notched five points apiece.

When Harkless made a driving floater at the buzzer, UNLV had itself a very annoying 49-28 halftime lead.

Seven of UNLV’s points during the decisive run came via the fast break, which Kruger said has been an emphasis all season.

“It was all a result of how hard they’re playing defensively,” Kruger said. “We’ve said that offense is going to kind of be a work in progress with this many new pieces, so any points we can get in transition that are positive possessions are always going to be really good for us.”

Senior forward Luis Rodriguez led UNLV with 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting, while Harkless tallied 17 and Johnson chipped in 12. Muoka played his best game of the season, posting eight points, eight rebounds and four blocks.

Muoka, who shot 4-of-4 from the field and was a plus-20 in his 28 minutes, was happy to see a couple of his rejections turn into easy transition points for his teammates.

“We work on that every day and it’s paying off,” Muoka said.

San Diego made five of its last six shots (after UNLV had removed its starters) to make the final score a little more respectable, but the Scarlet and Gray had this one all the way, building the lead as high as 31 points on several occasions throughout the second half.

UNLV will return “home” to host Hawaii at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson on Wednesday. Webster played his first two collegiate seasons at Hawaii, so he likely has some acquaintances on the team.

It’s unlikely they’ll be as candid as his San Diego pal was, however.

“That’s not normal at all,” Webster said of his friendly convo. “Just to hear that from him was great.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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