ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – They call this state “the Land of Enchantment.” But once again there was nothing enchanting about the trip here for the UNLV Rebels for their Mountain West opener against No. 25 New Mexico Wednesday night at The Pit.
The Rebels (13-3, 0-1) dropped a key league road game that they had plenty of chances to win, 65-60, and also got shoved around by the more physical Lobos (14-2, 1-0), who seemed to come up with every key rebound down the stretch and somehow found a way to win despite shooting just 38.6 percent from the field and 51.7 percent from the free throw line.
Guard Kendall Williams nailed a 3-pointer with 2:15 remaining to put New Mexico ahead, 60-58, and UNLV could never regain the lead the rest of the way.
One reason for that was the fact New Mexico came up with four offensive rebounds in the final 1:13, including three after their own missed free throws.
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“My biggest concern about tonight was we needed to make more plays with toughness,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Get loose balls, get defensive rebounds, block out on free throws; I think tonight was about needing to win more 50/50 balls than anything else.”
Sophomore center Alex Kirk finished with 23 points and nine rebounds to lead New Mexico, which took advantage of 17 Rebel turnovers, including 11 in the second half.
“That was as difficult as conference openers can be,” Lobos coach Steve Alford said. “Those were two really good teams that fought each other.”
The Lobos had their chances to pull away late at the free throw line, but they were only 6-for-12 from the line in the last three minutes.
“Both teams made it hard on each other to score,” Alford said. “I thought the key was they made runs when they got out in transition. When we got them into halfcourt that really favored us.
“I just thought our guys battled. It’s a game where we shoot 38 percent (from the floor) and 51 percent (from the line) against a nationally-ranked team.”
UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett was held to 12 points and six rebounds, well below his season averages of 19.9 and 9.1. Foul trouble limited him to just 26 minutes after he picked up his fourth on a charge with 14 minutes remaining.
Still, the Rebels had a chance to at least get to overtime late in the game. Freshman guard Katin Reinhardt missed an open 3-pointer that would have tied it at 63-63 with 14 seconds left, and guard Anthony Marshall, who finished with seven points, nine assists and seven rebounds, turned the ball over on a drive to the basket a few seconds later after Lobo guard Hugh Greenwood missed a pair of foul shots.
“It’s a huge (win),” Kirk said. “This league, you’re going to have to definitely protect the house. I just heard Boise barely beat Wyoming. It’s going to be like that every time you’re on the road. It’s going to be a battle.”
Khem Birch and Bennett led UNLV with 12 points. The Rebels return to action on Saturday night against Air Force, a 78-65 winner over visiting Nevada on Wednesday, at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Speaking of getting shoved around, check out our video of an apparent Lobo fan shoving Marshall at the end of a play early in the second half. Referee Verne Harris ejected the fan immediately and there were no further problems with the crowd.