With 12 minutes to go Saturday afternoon and the score tied at 44, the 2013 Mountain West Tournament championship was there for the taking for the UNLV Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Tony Snell and the 15th-ranked New Mexico Lobos had other ideas however.
The lanky 6-foot-7 junior scored a game-high 21 points, including 13 in a row during one key stretch late in the second half, to lead the Lobos (29-5) to a 63-56 victory and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Snell connected on 12-of-20 3-pointers in three tourney games, including a Mountain West championship game record-tying five treys in seven attempts on Saturday.
“The guy who really got away from us today is an NBA player,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “There’s no doubt that Tony Snell is going to play in that league for a long time with the things he’s able to do.”
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Coming into the tournament, Snell was somewhat overlooked. Backcourt mate Kendall Williams was named the league’s player of the year while sophomore center Alex Kirk was selected to all-Mountain West second team. Snell earned a spot on the third unit.
“We’ll put our starting five up against anybody,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford, a net drapped around his neck for the second straight year, said. “I think we have an outstanding starting five that is experienced, they’re talented, and they understand winning. They understand the ebb and flow of a game, the importance of D stops, coming out of timeouts, getting to the free-throw line. Whatever it may be, they have a really good understanding of that.”
New Mexico held a 46-45 lead with 10:03 remaining when Snell fueled a 10-2 Lobo run over the next seven minutes. He made a pair of 3-pointers, a reverse layup and finished it off with a drive to the basket that gave New Mexico a 56-47 lead.
UNLV (25-9) closed to within 56-53 when guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who finished with a team-high 19 points, hit back-to-back 3-pointers.
But Snell sealed the win with his fifth 3-pointer of the game (See Video above) with 58 seconds to play.
“I just have more confidence now,” Snell said of his hot shooting in the tournament. “My teammates always encourage me to keep shooting the ball whenever I miss it. My confidence definitely went up.”
Williams finished with 12 points and seven assists and Hugh Greenwood added nine points, seven rebounds and five assists for New Mexico, which held UNLV to 33.9 percent shooting.
Freshman Anthony Bennett finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds for UNLV but scored just two points in the final 32 minutes thanks to some nice defensive work by forwards Cameron Bairstow and Chad Adams, and some not so nice shot selection by the Rebels, who attempted 31 3-pointers, making nine (29 percent).
“We just didn’t perform that well on the offensive end,” Rice said. “As much as Snell got away from us a little bit, it’s hard to win a game against a team like New Mexico when we score 56 points. That’s not a good formula of success for us.”
Bennett, likely playing his final game at the Thomas & Mack before heading off to the NBA lottery in June, scored UNLV’s first 11 points, nailing a 3-pointer from the top of the key to go along with a pair of powerful dunks. Still, it was only good enough to give the Rebels an 11-11 tie at the first media timeout.
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New Mexico then took a 19-15 lead when Greenwood sank 3-pointers on consecutive possessions. A steal and layup by Snell upped the lead to six points before Justin Hawkins banked in a 3-pointer to halt a 10-2 Lobos run.
The Rebels closed the gap to 31-29 on a pair of Anthony Marshall free throws but Snell answered with a long arching 3-pointer from above the top of the key to put the Lobos back up by five, 34-29. UNLV cut it to 34-32 at halftime when freshman guard Katin Reinhardt, who finished with 11 points, nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The second half was all Snell and New Mexico defense. UNLV managed just one field goal during one nine minute and 47 second span late in the second half.
“Shots we normally make weren’t going down,” Marshall said. “Katin had some open looks towards the end and they just didn’t go down. We have a lot of faith in him and we know he can make those shots. Same with Bryce and the rest of the team.”
The Rebels will gather Sunday afternoon and watch the NCAA Selection Show together to learn who and where they will play.
“These last three years haven’t been too kind for us,” Marshall said of the Rebels’ three straight one-and-dones. “For me and my fellow seniors, this is the last go-around for us. After this, there is nothing else.”
GAME NOTES: Joining Snell on the all-tournament team were Bennett, Bairstow, who had nine points and seven rebounds in the finale while also playing tough defense on Bennett, Reinhardt and Colorado State center Colton Iverson. … Dejean-Jones accounted for 17 of UNLV’s final 20 points. … The Lobos finished with seven turnovers, the second fewest ever in a Mountain West title game. … Bennett scored a total of 57 points in the tournament, the most ever by a freshman in a Mountain West tournament. The old mark was 52 scored by UNLV’s Dalron Johnson in 2000.