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Third straight narrow loss is tough for Rebels to swallow

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV’s Jovan Mooring (30) looks oddly to a loose ball after being fouled by New Mexico during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.

UNLV loses to New Mexico

UNLV players are reflected on the court as the opening fireworks conclude before their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Launch slideshow »

For the fourth straight game, UNLV played 39 back-and-forth minutes before going into the 40th with a chance at victory. For the third straight game, the Rebels came up short, this time losing at home to New Mexico, 80-77, when Jovan Mooring’s last-second 3-pointer missed at the buzzer.

Mooring’s rushed shot with time winding down may have sealed the defeat, but UNLV lost the game on the defensive end, as the Rebels allowed New Mexico to score on its final seven possessions.

“Just a lack of communication on the floor. We decided to change defenses a lot, it worked for us [in the first meeting, a 71-66 UNLV win on Jan. 10]. But there were several times when four guys were in one thing, and one guy didn’t get the memo.”

One such defensive lapse led to an open dunk for New Mexico center Obij Aget to put the Lobos ahead, 72-68, with 1:12 to play. After a Cheickna Dembele free throw brought the Rebels within three points, Lobos guard Elijah Brown buried a clutch 3-pointer to make it 75-69 with 42 seconds to play.

To the Rebels’ credit, they kept pushing back. Mooring hit a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left to cut the deficit to 75-72, and after Brown hit two free throws to give UNM a five-point advantage, Mooring swished another 3 to bring UNLV within 77-75 with 20 seconds to play.

UNM’s Jordan Hunter made two free throws, and Tyrell Green made a layup to bring the Rebels within two points again. UNLV finally got a break when Hunter made just 1-of-2 on his next trip to the line with six seconds remaining, giving New Mexico an 80-77 lead and giving UNLV a chance to tie on the final possession.

After a timeout, the Rebels inbounded to Mooring, who raced down the right sideline. A ball screen at halfcourt gave him some room to operate, and he pulled up on the right wing with a clean look at the basket. Mooring said his footing slipped as he rose up, and the shot hit the front of the rim.

After losing by one point at Wyoming a week ago (another long miss from Mooring at the buzzer) and by four points at San Jose State on Saturday, the latest not-quite-over-the-hump defeat seemed to take a toll on the Rebels.

“I’d rather get beat by 30 than lose by 3,” Mooring said, “because then when you look at the film, you see loose balls you didn’t get, you see missed assignments, you see missed open shots. There’s so many little things that go into losing close games.”

Despite the difficult circumstances, Menzies said his team doesn’t have the luxury of dwelling on tough losses.

“I can’t remember when I’ve lost three games like this, that were so close, bam, bam, bam,” Menzies said. “I’m going to make sure [the players] are good. They’ve got to take tonight and lick their wounds, be a little upset, and then we’ll take tomorrow and figure out how to get a win on Saturday.”

Mooring finished with 23 points, six assists, and two steals. The Rebels also got a bounce-back game from Green, who scored a career-high 25 points on 7-of-15 shooting.

Brown tallied 29 for the Lobos on 8-of-17 shooting. New Mexico shot 48.3 percent for the game (29-of-60).

Menzies expressed some optimism about the Rebels’ mental toughness to this point in the season and seemed confident that the team will be able to rebound from the latest stinging defeat.

“I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “Young kids are hard to read. I’m still figuring this group out. Sometimes you look in their eyes, you can’t figure out, ‘Ok, what are you feeling right now, dude?’ They’re a tough group to read, but they’ve been giving me what I’ve asked. I’ve said I want you guys to compete, I want you to play hard, I want you to get in there and give me some energy. Just give me that effort — if I’ve got to coach effort, man, we’ve got problems — but they’re giving me that.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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