LAS VEGAS — Last season UNLV didn't get its eighth win until Dec. 31, two games into Mountain West Conference action.
Saturday night, the Runnin' Rebels improved to 8-2 with three games left on their nonconference schedule.
Jovan Mooring shot 50 percent from the field and scored 27 points to lead UNLV to an 89-82 victory over Illinois at the MGM Grand Garden.
After squandering an 11-point lead and falling behind by three points with 10:25 left, the Runnin' Rebels closed on a 33-23 run to seal the win.
Brandon McCoy scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for UNLV (8-2), while Shakur Juiston and Jordan Johnson each had 10 points.
"Our bigs, they do a great job of spacing out, and taking up a lot of space underneath, and that opens up a lot of driving lanes," Mooring said, about McCoy and Juiston. "They're athletic and they're very skilled. They've learned quicker than I've ever played with, since I've been at UNLV. If they continue to do that I think I'll be just fine."
Illinois (7-4) was led by Mark Smith, who had 17 points, and Trent Frazier, who added 16 points for the Illini.
After UNLV opened the second half with two free throws from Kris Clyburn, the Illini went on an 18-5 run to take a 54-52 lead, with all of the Rebels' points coming from the charity stripe. UNLV's first field goal of the second half came from Tervell Beck at the 11:52 mark, tying the game at 54-all.
"In the second half I thought we played well when we needed to, which is what it's all about, winning time," UNLV coach Marvin Menzies said. "That was a doozy; I don't think I've been involved with a game that's had that many free throws.
The Runnin' Rebels were 33 of 48 from the free throw line, while the Illini were 11 for 15. Coming into the game Illinois had shot at least 24 free throws in eight of its first 10 games.
But the Illini continued their problem with committing fouls, as they came into the game ranked 348th out of 351 teams with 228, and ended up committing a season-high 36 fouls. Smith and Mark Alstork fouled out, while five other players finished with four fouls.
"I'm frustrated with the fouls," coach Brad Underwood said. "We've talked about it and emphasized in practice, yet we get in the moment and we're committing them."
The Runnin' Rebels wasted no time with their offensive game, hitting their first six shots from the field, while opening a 14-4 lead before back-to-back baskets by Shakur Juiston made it 29-19 midway through the first half.
But Illinois answered with a 12-0 run to take a two-point lead with six minutes left in the half. UNLV answered with a 14-2 run of its own, culminated by Anthony Smith, who soared above the rim for an impressive put-back slam dunk.
The Runnin' Rebels hit 16 of 31 from the field in the first half. After its slow start, the Illini shot 44.8 percent (13 of 29) from the field, including 5 of 11 from 3-point range, over the first 20 minutes.
Illinois: The Illini lost more than the game. Leading scorer Leron Black only played 12 minutes before leaving with an undisclosed injury. The junior forward watched the rest of the game from the bench with his left arm in a sling. Black, who averages 14.8 points per game, saw his career-long active streak of seven-straight games scoring in double figures come to an end.
UNLV: The Rebels have prided themselves on winning the battle of the boards, and came into the game ranked second nationally in rebounds per game (46.44). UNLV was outrebounded by the Illini, 39-34.
TRAVELING TRAVESTY - The Fighting Illini continue to struggle against non-conference teams on the road. Illinois was aiming for its first non-conference road win since defeating Boston U in the opening round of the 2014 NIT (March 19, 2014).
RECRUITING TRAIL: While the Illini prepared for the Runnin' Rebels on Friday, that didn't stop Illinois assistant coach Ron Coleman from doing a little recruiting while in town. The first-year assistant visited Las Vegas' Liberty High School's five-star prospect Julian Strawther, who is tabbed as one of the nation's top recruits for 2020. Illinois is expected to offer Strawther a full-ride scholarship.
CAPTAIN SKYHOOK - Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on hand for a special halftime ceremony honoring cancer survivors, while helping to raise awareness for Coaches vs. Cancer. Since battling leukemia, Abdul-Jabbar has used his platform to help raise awareness and dollars to fight cancer.
Illinois: hosts Longwood on Tuesday
UNLV: at Pacific next Saturday