Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011 | 7:21 p.m.
Las Vegas Sun reporters Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer discuss the UNLV's last-second victory against New Mexico. It was a thrilling 63-62 win that gives the Rebels much needed momentum moving forward, though they're far from out of the woods in an effort to land a fourth NCAA tournament bid in five years.
At the podium following his team's 63-62 season-saving victory on Saturday afternoon, UNLV coach Lon Kruger tried to recall, in order, all of the big moments, bad moments and game-deciding moments from one of the craziest closing stretches you'll ever see.
He got most of it, but forgive anyone who couldn't sort it all out from memory alone.
"My heart dropped like four times; I closed my eyes a hundred times, rubbed my head I don't know how many times," freshman forward Carlos Lopez said. "It's a great feeling."
The game was ultimately decided when New Mexico freshman guard Kendall Williams missed a free throw with just over one second left in the contest, sending the Thomas & Mack Center's matinee crowd into a frenzy and helping UNLV somewhat atone for Wednesday's embarrassing 15-point loss on the same floor to Colorado State.
UNLV's up-and-down Mountain West Conference season found another small peak, as the Rebels are now 15-5 overall, 3-3 in the league and still have good reason to be optimistic regarding the near future.
The Lobos, on the other hand, came up short in what many outsiders labeled as an elimination game, and dipped to 1-4 in the MWC and 13-7 on the season after winning the conference's regular season title each of the last two years.
"We're 1-4, and it's tough trying to come back from a deficit like that, especially in a league like ours, with a lot of good teams," UNM senior guard Dairese Gary said. "Right now, I don't know if we're even thinking about a conference title anymore."
UNLV is also a long ways off from being in the thick of the league title race but to start the game looked like the team that early in the season was regarded as one of the nation's most dangerous.
The Rebels came out hot, going 14-of-23 from the floor in the first half and taking a 34-30 halftime lead. That was also aided by a strong defensive showing across the board.
The team's biggest spark early was Chace Stanback, who scored 16 of his game-high 20 points before the break, including a trio of 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes.
What everyone will talk about the most from what was a constant back-and-forth affair will be the final 112 seconds.
It all started when UNM freshman Tony Snell buried a corner 3-pointer to put the Lobos ahead 61-58. Following a wrenching missed layup by Brice Massamba on the other end, Gary committed a big turnover near mid-court, and Stanback sliced the UNLV deficit to a point with a 15-foot pull-up jumper in transition.
The teams then swapped turnovers on the next three possessions, with the third finding the hands of UNLV senior guard Tre'Von Willis with 29 seconds left.
Willis had a clear path to the hoop for a go-ahead layup but was yanked from behind by Gary, drawing an intentional foul call, giving UNLV two free throws and the ball.
He hit both charities, but then Oscar Bellfield split a pair on the ensuing possession to keep it at a two-point game.
New Mexico never got a shot attempt before turning the ball over but was given a last, desperate chance after Derrick Jasper threw an inbounds pass in the corner directly to Kendall Williams.
Kruger said that in retrospect, he wished he'd called a timeout before the pass, but instead, it gave Williams a last heave. He was fouled and his shot attempt missed long, giving him a chance to tie the game with a second remaining.
He calmly sank the first but dropped to the floor and covered his face after his second attempt shot off to the left off of the iron.
"My heart was pounding," Stanback said of the closing moments. "I thought we'd lost it for a second, but we picked it up and got into the flow."
The Rebels played with fire but are now in much better shape than the Lobos as the conference schedule nears its midway point.
Every game will likely be a must-win from here on out for UNLV, which it also appears will be playing with an ailing Willis for a while.
Willis missed the team's last two games with a sore right knee and was a game-time decision for Saturday, ultimately playing 25 minutes off of the bench. He scored nine points on 3-of-8 shooting, had three steals, two assists and four turnovers.
It was clear that last year's First Team All-MWC performer was physically limited in the first half, but he fed off adrenaline enough in the second half to ignore the pain.
"At times, I didn't even feel my knee, and at other times, I did feel it," he said. "I just had problems with stopping and going. If I could go one way, that's what I could do. Stopping, going, planting, bursting … I just don't have that explosiveness.
He said that he'll do whatever it takes to keep playing, no matter how much he's able to play from game to game.
"Honestly, I don't think I have a choice," he continued. "I've got to do what I can to be out there with my teammates … It's real frustrating, man. I had some things in mind that I wanted to do (this season), but that's how things go. I'm still positive. It doesn't bother me at all as far as numbers. As long as we win, I'm happy. I'm just happy for everybody tonight, and I can't give enough thanks to my teammates."
UNLV has no games for a week following Tuesday's trip to face Wyoming. The Cowboys, like New Mexico, are 1-4 in the league and appear to be the MWC's weakest link at this point.
Still, the Rebels are in no position to take anyone lightly moving forward.
They set a good precedent on Saturday, playing much harder all around on than they did on Wednesday, when they were booed off of the floor by the home crowd.
"We were playing for pride," Stanback said. "We knew it was going to be a battle, and we came to fight tonight."
• One of UNLV's more inspired efforts on the afternoon came from Lopez, who scored nine points and had three huge first-half steals. He missed a couple of bunnies in the second half, but those came after he twice crossed up UNM star forward Drew Gordon on scores.
• Bellfield broke a recent shooting slump with a strong first half, scoring 10 of his 13 points before the break. He finished 4-of-7 from the floor, adding five assists.
• Gordon, who took a visit to UNLV after leaving UCLA last winter but was never offered a scholarship by the Rebels, finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds. His five field goals were all dunks. Since he became eligible at the end of the fall semester, the Lobos are 5-6.
• Other numbers of note … Gary, who played hard through a back injury suffered in the first half, led five Lobos in double figures with 15 points … UNLV's 46.2 percent shooting as a team from 3-point range was its highest number posted since a Dec. 8 victory over Boise State, when they shot at a 46.7 percent clip … Saturday's attendance was 13,843.