It wasn’t a pleasant week to be a UNLV basketball player … until Saturday night, that is.
Picked to battle for the Mountain West title, the Runnin’ Rebels suffered embarrassing back-to-back road losses at Boise State and Fresno State to fall to just 4-4 in league play.
But the sports talk shows, text messages and letters to the editor figure to be a whole lot kinder for UNLV players and coaches following a convincing wire-to-wire 64-55 win over Mountain West leader New Mexico on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
At least until Wednesday night’s fourth place showdown at Air Force.
Freshman forward Anthony Bennett scored 17 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots and guards Bruce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt added 16 points apiece to lead the Rebels (18-6, 5-4), who snapped a two-game losing streak and moved into a tie for fourth place with the Falcons in the Mountain West.
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Sophomore center Alex Kirk had 17 points and 16 rebounds for New Mexico (20-4, 7-2), which remained a half-game ahead of idle Colorado State (19-4, 6-2) in first place in the Mountain West.
“Safe to say the last seven days weren’t the highlight of the season for us,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Certainly it was a very tough week, a very tough game at Fresno State on Wednesday. We talked about learning from it (and) all we can do is move forward. And we did that. We beat a very, very good basketball team tonight.”
“I believe it’s the best we played as a team so far,” Dejean-Jones said. “Guys were tired of losing. Everybody just came together and said we wanted to improve as a team. We took (that attitude) into practice and I think that it showed.”
Bennett had five dunks en route to his ninth double-double of the season, the final one gave UNLV its largest lead of the game, 53-37, with 8:58 remaining. The Lobos, who defeated the Rebels, 65-60, in the first meeting at The Pit in Albuquerque on Jan. 9, never got any closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“Losing isn’t fun, especially if it’s against Boise State or Fresno State,” Bennett said. “We just went out there and practiced and practiced hard and listened to what the coaches had to say and came together.”
The loss snapped a three-game win streak for New Mexico, which has now dropped seven of the last eight regular-season games with UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Lobos shot just 33.9 percent from the field and drew head coach Steve Alford’s ire for settling for too many 3-pointers. New Mexico finished 4-of-22 beyond the arc (18.2 percent).
“Our effort was good but we didn’t show a whole lot of poise,” Alford said. “That’s not who we are, and we allowed their pressure to get us out of character.”
Spurred on by a near-sellout crowd of 17,738, UNLV looked nothing like the team that seemed to go through the motions in a 64-55 loss at Fresno State three nights earlier, jumping out to a 24-10 lead in the first 12 minutes behind the shooting of Dejean-Jones. He scored 13 points during the spurt, including three 3-pointers.
New Mexico, which had 10 turnovers in the first half, closed to within eight points, 31-23, on a Hugh Greenwood steal and layup with 2:23 remaining. But the Rebels went into the locker room with a 14-point lead after Reinhardt nailed a pair of 3-pointers to put UNLV up 37-23.
GAME NOTES: Dwayne Morgan, a 6-foot-7 forward from St. Frances Academy in Baltimore who is ranked the No. 18 overall prospect for the Class of 2014 by ESPN.com, attended the game on an official visit. Indiana, Missouri and Maryland are among the other schools recruiting Morgan. … Point guard Anthony Marshall, despite grimacing on several occasions with what appeared to be a bruised quad, also had a big game for the Rebels, scoring 11 points to go along with six assists and three steals. … UNLV’s perimeter defense held New Mexico guards Greenwood, Kendall Williams and Tony Snell to a combined 18 points on 7-of-26 shooting.