Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 77, New Mexico 74 (OT)
- LIVE GAME BLOG: Quintrell Thomas’s late surge powers UNLV to 77-74 overtime win at New Mexico
- Mountain West hoops power rankings: Feb. 22
- Bellfield keys monster second half for UNLV in 68-61 win at Colorado State
- KATS REPORT: HBO’s ‘Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV’ effectively captures a moment in time
- UNLV lands commitment from high-powered scoring guard Dantley Walker
- 2010-11 UNLV Schedule
- All Sun UNLV men's basketball coverage
It was just moments earlier when, while running on a mixture of fumes and adrenaline, the sophomore forward capped off the finest performance of his young collegiate career. He carried the Rebels through a grueling five-minute overtime period in a 77-74 victory at New Mexico.
"I'm not gonna lie, I was exhausted down the stretch, and I was definitely fighting as hard as I could every single time down the floor," he said. "I definitely didn't want to come out of the game, because I felt like I was giving us the best chance to win."
He's right. He was.
After the Rebels (21-7 overall, 9-5 Mountain West) squandered a 15-point second-half lead and trailed in the final minute of regulation, they scraped enough together to force overtime, and in the bonus frame, Thomas scored three key, difficult buckets. That put the finishing touches on a 19-point, 13-rebound performance.
It also completed a sweep of a monster two-game road swing, which began on Saturday with a 68-61 victory at Colorado State. Pulling off both wins was something that didn't look like a very strong possibility just a week ago after the Rebels played their ugliest game of the season in a 49-42 home win against Air Force.
A lot has changed since then, and the proof is visible.
"We're playing hard, and we're playing smarter," senior guard Tre'Von Willis said. "That's what's propelling us right now over the top."
The smart, efficient play that keyed UNLV's memorable second-half spurt on Saturday in Fort Collins, Colo., carried over into Wednesday's first half.
A crowd of 15,346 was kept silent for 20 minutes as the Rebels came out firing, taking a 35-29 lead at the intermission. In that stretch, they were 13-of-23 from the floor with only five turnovers. The patience and ball movement was crisp, and the zones thrown at them by New Mexico (17-11, 5-8) were never an issue.
Willis was carrying the load offensively, scoring 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting, while the team defensive effort was on point.
UNLV climbed ahead by as many as 15 points early in the second half, but the course of the game shifted quickly as the Rebels were whistled for a bevy of fouls in the first 10 minutes out of the locker room. At one point, New Mexico held a foul edge down the stretch run of 12-3.
The Lobos were shaky at the free throw line but hit enough of them, mixed with some clutch buckets, to make it a thriller late.
Up one with under 30 seconds to go, UNLV was forced to foul after an Oscar Bellfield missed 3-point try. New Mexico senior stalwart Dairese Gary split a pair at the line, Bellfield tied the game at 67-67 moments later, and Gary's attempt at the buzzer from close range fell off of the iron.
That's when Thomas busted out.
Willis drove hard and tried to draw a foul on an awkward heave early in overtime, but Thomas rose out of nowhere to grab the carom and stick it back over a Lobos defender, giving UNLV a 72-70 lead that it wouldn't relinquish.
It wasn't Thomas's first big game of the conference season, but it was his first against one of the league's elite front lines. He went toe to toe all night with New Mexico star forward Drew Gordon and came out on top.
"He was up and above everyone," Kruger said. "I thought his effort on the boards was terrific."
As for Willis, he produced a season-high 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including a career-high five 3-pointers. He also tallied four assists and four steals, playing sticky defense the entire way.
It was quite the effort for a guy who almost didn't play at all.
Willis banged up his left knee on Saturday at Colorado State. It's the right knee which required offseason surgery and has nagged him this season, but after hardly practicing the last couple of days, Willis was a game-time decision.
"Trials and tribulations," he said of a season that's been nothing but a roller coaster. "It's been a helluva year."
In the end, the Rebels probably gained more from the experience by winning after blowing the second half lead than they might have had the Lobos never made their big push back from the abyss.
"It shows that we can grind games out," Thomas said. "We know that past this point, all games are like that. Games in the (NCAA) tournament, there's no blowouts. Every game is a grind-it-out. This game proves a lot to ourselves and maybe to our fans."
The feeling in and outside of the locker room on Saturday in Fort Collins was one of relief, while on Wednesday, there was much more excitement mixed in. The players could be heard celebrating behind the door, and the normally reserved coaching staff even joined in.
Though no one in the program likes to talk about its postseason future, sweeping the crucial road trip all but punched UNLV's ticket back to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
At this point, they're playing for not just NCAA tourney seeding but also to secure third place in the Mountain West. UNLV on Wednesday pulled into a tie in the loss column with Colorado State, who lost 84-76 at BYU and still has a road game remaining at San Diego State.
Above all of that, the Rebels are again playing inspired ball after proving to themselves that they could rekindle some of the early season magic that it appeared may have been lost as late as just a week ago.
"After the Air Force game, I think people understood that we couldn't keep things going the way they were," Thomas said. "There are guys who are stepping up and making shots now, because we couldn't run from the problem. I definitely feel like now we're moving in the right direction."
• More Stats of Note: The Rebels' NCAA-record streak for consecutive games with a 3-pointer made reached 800 in the opening minutes following a Bellfield trey from the corner. They remain the only program to hit one in every game since its inception to start the 1986-87 season … UNLV's leading scorer on the season, Chace Stanback, scored only two points in nine minutes before fouling out. It was his fewest minutes played in a game in two seasons with the Rebels … New Mexico's Dairese Gary led all scorers with 26 points, while Drew Gordon finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds … New Mexico's Tony Snell, who buried key shots in UNLV's 63-62 victory over the Lobos in Las Vegas in January, had his worst night in a while. The 6-foot-7 sharpshooting freshman had one point and was 0-for-4 from 3-point range in 25 minutes.