Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 | 8:05 p.m.
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 64, New Mexico 55
- BLOG: UNLV never trails in key home victory against New Mexico
- Take 5: Resetting the storylines halfway through Mountain West play
- UNLV Extras: Assessing the damage after the Rebels drop to 4-4 in league play
- Rebels have only simple explanations for complex loss at Fresno State
- Rebels searching for better mentality heading into road game at Fresno State
- Rebels still receiving votes in rankings, but not as many as Mountain West foe Colorado State
- UNLV Extras: Plenty of missed opportunities to go around in Rebels’ loss
- Rebels trail the whole way in disappointing setback at Boise State
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
The UNLV basketball team’s problems are far from fixed, but a 64-55 victory Saturday against No. 15 New Mexico was clearly a step in the right direction.
Yes, it’s tough to forget the train wreck of the past two games — playing uninspired in an ugly loss at Boise State, then trailing by as many as 16 points in falling at last-place Fresno State.
But, in what was deemed as a must-win game against New Mexico to salvage the season, the Rebels — especially in the first half — resembled the quality team they were expected to be.
Rebel fans, it’s OK to exhale. The season is off life support.
Unlike the past two games, the Rebels played with emotion, energy and aggression for most of the night. At times, they were too aggressive, which led to some ugly turnovers and rushed shots. Still, coach Dave Rice will likely take the good with the bad when it comes to playing with aggression, knowing the miscues from playing with urgency are better than simply going through the motions — see the defeats at Boise State and Fresno State, where a lack-of-effort was partially to blame.
Saturday, the effort wasn’t a question from the opening tip. The Rebels shared the basketball and had a good flow offensively, were intense on defense and rode the momentum of the near-sellout home crowd. And, when New Mexico trimmed the lead to just eight points late, the Rebels stepped up with defensive stops.
Here are some more observations from the game:
Anthony Bennett’s big-time statement: With the Rebels desperate for a good start to the game, their most talented player delivered. That, after all, is what McDonald’s All-Americans are supposed to do. The freshman started the scoring by knocking down a 3-pointer and capped a 9-2 UNLV scoring outburst over the game’s initial three minutes with a monstrous dunk on the fast break to bring most of the 17,738 fans in attendance to their feet. Two plays, three minutes and it appeared the Rebels’ problems were fixed. Bennett was the force inside he needs to be for UNLV to be successful, finishing with 17 points and 12 rebounds in one of his best games of the Mountain West Conference season. When Bennett is on his game, the Rebels likely will be, too.
Great effort from Carlos: Carlos Lopez-Sosa’s role has been reduced to a few minutes a game, if any. Saturday, he made the most of them. In five minutes at the end of the first half, he grabbed three rebounds and had an assist, feeding the ball from the post to an open shooter for a 3-pointer to help UNLV build a 14-point halftime lead. Lopez has several limitations, but in spot situations such as Saturday, can provide a spark — something he showed late in the second half by grabbing a loose ball between two New Mexico players by diving onto the floor. It’s the kind of hustle play the Rebels had previously lacked. Lopez is an above average passer, using good court vision to start the fast break after a rebound, or finding a shooter for an open look. More important, he’s a team player. Instead of sulking on the bench after having his role diminished, he’s constantly on his feet cheering for teammates. Fittingly, he was rewarded with some important minutes — he played 15 minutes Saturday, scoring two points, grabbing five rebounds and earning a loud roar from the home crowd for his hustle.
Problem No.1? Ill-advised shots: I’ve frequently defended Bryce Dejean-Jones for his everything-looks-like-an-open-shot approach, but consecutive air ball attempts on 3-pointers in the first half seemed a bit rushed. The Rebels had their best shooting performance in three weeks, connecting on 9-of-22 on their 3-pointers to make it tough to criticize the shot selection. But just because it falls doesn’t mean it’s a good shot. The Rebels are getting momentum and flow offensively, and don’t get me wrong, tonight’s effort will bring several diehard fans off the ledge. Still, they shot just 37 percent and had a few scoring droughts that would have spelled disaster if they weren’t playing at home. Jones and Katin Reinhardt, two players receiving most of the criticism the past two games, each scored 16 points. Credit to both for helping UNLV win the game. They were great. And, when the offense settles, will be better.
The ugly truth: Even with the win, the Rebels are still a middle-of-the-pack team in the league. San Diego State, Colorado State and New Mexico have played better and have more impressive NCAA Tournament credentials. UNLV is still solidly in the NCAA Tournament, especially with a quality win against ranked New Mexico, but if Selection Sunday were this week, the Rebels postseason draw would be disappointing. The good news is there are still two weeks — and home games with San Diego State, Colorado State and the league tournament — to enhance UNLV’s resume. Regardless, the loss at Fresno State will be an eyesore.