When Utah transfer Donnie Tillman was given his clearance to play for UNLV’s basketball team this year, instead of next, many fans rejoiced. The “Sixth Man of the Year” in the Pac-12 last year, Tillman was expected to bolster the Rebels in a rebuild season. Despite a rough first few games, Tillman has seemingly settled in as a key player for UNLV.
Tillman, a junior, scored a team-high 17 points in the Rebels’ 79-75 road overtime loss to Cal Tuesday night. The gifted big man pulled down eight rebounds and added three assists. His only major issue was the four turnovers. All in all, though, Tillman looked like he was finally settling in and letting the game come to him unlike the Kansas State game, where he scored just one point with three turnovers.
“Donnie’s a mismatch problem,” UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “He’s really physical with the ball. So he’s a very complete player on both ends of the floor, and I think he can be really impactful for us.”
The 6-foot-7 forward led the way agains Cal but it just wasn’t enough for the Rebels to sneak out of Berkeley with a win. Despite the fact the offense played well for the first 34 minutes in building a 65-56 lead with 5:58 to play. The Rebels hit just 1-of-8 shots in the final six minutes, turning the ball over five times as they collapsed in the game’s “championship minutes.”
The Golden Bears survived a few UNLV chances in the final minutes but the Rebels failed to run any semblance of an offense in the waning moments of regulation for the second straight game. Cal dominated the overtime en route to the win.
“For our team to be successful we need to defend, rebound and take care of the ball, ” Otzelberger said. “In the first half, we did a great job taking care of the ball but didn’t defend how we would like to and they scored too easily. In the second half, our defense kicked in but then we had too many turnovers. We have talked a lot about it – for us to be successful we need to do those things night in and night out.”
The loss comes as the program slowly builds enthusiasm in Otzelberger’s first season at the helm.
Despite the loss, Donnie Tillman looked like he was getting more comfortable. At some moments, he was dominant against his former Pac-12 opponents. The flashes were there and Tillman didn’t look like he was trying to be more than he truly is. His numbers could have been even better had he not shot just 4-of-8 from the free throw line.
Against Kansas State, on the other hand, he was brutal as he attempted to integrate himself into the offensive flow. He only attempted three shots and just didn’t seem comfortable.
The former Findlay Prep standout came to UNLV a few months ago, and was granted immediate eligibility after the NCAA had approved the waiver for junior forward Donnie Tillman, who transferred from Utah, to play this season.
“I can’t wait to tell my mom,” an elated Tillman said in a short media interview 10 minutes after he found out. “I just thank God. I’m excited to get to play. I’m excited to be here. I’m excited to be a Rebel.”
As a Ute last year, Tillman ranked third on the team in scoring with 10.5 points per game and was second on the team with 163 rebounds (5.3 rpg), registering 18 double-digit scoring games for Utah. He was voted “Sixth Man of the Year” by the league’s coaches and media.
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Tillman graduated from Findlay Prep in Henderson, in 2017 after three seasons for the Pilots. He averaged 14.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game as a senior and was rated as a four-star recruit by ESPN.com.
Donnie Tillman will look to keep the positive momentum in his game Friday night when the Rebels take on UCLA in the second of an early Pac-12 road trip. At 1-2, the Rebels are looking to keep from falling to 1-3 for the first time since the 1995-96 season under Bill Bayno. The last time UNLV started 1-2 was in 2000-01 season. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m and the game will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks once again.