Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 | 10:24 p.m.
- Instant Analysis: Rebels begin fixing what was broken in 9-point win against New Mexico
- 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
As excited as the nearly sold-out crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center was Saturday night while watching UNLV lead wire-to-wire against No. 15 New Mexico, the evening had an air of What If?
What if the Rebels came into this game off a victory or two, in the hunt for a league title instead of stuck in the middle of the pack?
This 64-55 victory was the type of game the Rebels (18-6, 5-4) absolutely needed after dropping back-to-back games on the road. UNLV coach Dave Rice acknowledged the team felt its backs were against the wall, and the players came out with a fire not rivaled since the victory at San Diego State. In defeating the Lobos (20-4, 7-2), the Rebels announced they’re not done yet.
There’s a caveat, though.
“It only works if we continue to make progress,” Rice said.
Just like Fresno State was one game, Rice said, so too was this victory, which knocked UNM’s conference lead down to a half-game over idle Colorado State.
“It might be a turning point,” said Bryce Dejean-Jones, who scored 11 of UNLV’s first 22 points and finished with 16 on 6-of-13 shooting.
“Might be” because it still depends on how UNLV handles the road starting Wednesday at Air Force (14-8, 5-4), which is fighting for its NCAA Tournament life after dropping a game at UNR earlier Saturday.
Coming into Saturday’s game, Dejean-Jones said, the Rebels from the starters to the end of the bench decided to put forth more effort from the start of the game. It showed as UNLV led by nine about six minutes in and took a 14-point lead into halftime. That aggression and anger had been missing from the team lately, and keeping it around is a key to turning this victory into another one.
And how do the Rebels accomplish that?
“We just have to do it,” Dejean-Jones said.
Just like the Rebels’ loss at Fresno State wasn’t only because the team missed shots, the answer’s not that simple.
For one, Dejean-Jones and freshman Katin Reinhardt shot the ball much better than they had of late. Together they combined for 32 points and also tallied 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
“It’s an amazing difference for our team when our wings make shots,” Rice said.
Part of the reason they were successful has to do with a change Rice made to the offense, inserting more ball screens into the sets. Rice said he wanted to get those guys good one-on-one matchups while also creating more space for the big men.
Ball screens (instead of something like a motion offense) are the biggest offensive trend in college basketball lately, and it’s not like UNLV didn’t already use them. Rice said he just wanted more, and to have more Rebels running them. Freshman Daquan Cook played eight minutes, and while he barely registered in the stat box he handled the offense well.
His emergence has always been key considering the amount of minutes Anthony Marshall is asked to play. Marshall shot 2-for-7 from the field but hit four straight free throws in the final minute when New Mexico was purposefully trying to foul him to get back in the game. The Lobos never got closer than seven.
On the inside, Anthony Bennett did a little of everything and a lot of scoring, finishing with 17 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, two steals, two assists and two turnovers. The Rebels committed only 11 turnovers compared to UNM’s 13, and more importantly they scored 13 points off turnovers and 11 on the fast break. All of those points off turnovers came in the first half, backing up the Rebels’ emphasis on coming out right away with something to prove.
“I think we came out more physical, more fired up and just wanted to put it on them in this one,” Bennett said.
Khem Birch struggled shooting (1-for-6) while backup Carlos Lopez-Sosa earned a couple of near standing ovations from the home crowd for his efforts. Lopez-Sosa had five rebounds, two points, two steals and two assists in 15 minutes.
The big men’s counterpart, UNM’s Alex Kirk, was even better, going for 17 points and 16 rebounds. That was a trade UNLV was willing to make as the Lobos scored 32 points in the paint but shot only 4-for-22 behind the three-point line.
The Rebels’ five starters played at least 29 minutes apiece while Mike Moser and Justin Hawkins, two guys who often play starters’ minutes, combined for just eight minutes on the court. Both are going through slumps right now, though with the way Rice uses his bench based on matchups either one could be right back in the main rotation Wednesday.
Rice said it was obvious his team was confident heading into this game. The players sounded like they were ready to blow the roof off the Mack, which nearly happened early in the game when 17,738 exploded after a Bennett dunk.
“I was having a hard time going to sleep (Friday) I was so excited to play,” Dejean-Jones said.
That excitement and the energy were huge factors for UNLV. So too was the maturity Rice said his team gained from going through the past week together.
“It was important for guys to know, after a very difficult two-game stretch on the road, that they still had each other,” Rice said. “That’s a huge deal for our group.”
But doing it for one game isn’t enough. The Rebels know that, yet few will believe they can play like that again, especially away from home, until they see it. That’s the position UNLV has played itself into.
UNLV’s situation could have been better, but Saturday the Rebels didn’t let it get worse. The potential has always been there and this was a glimpse of how good things can be when it comes together.
The only way to get rid of those lingering What Ifs is to make the past week the catalyst that puts UNLV on its desired path the rest of the season. This was the first step. Now the Rebels have to do it again.