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Nick Blair explodes for 26 points as Rebels sweep New Mexico

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John Locher / AP

UNLV’s Nick Blair (20) reacts after scoring against New Mexico during the first half on an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Las Vegas.

UNLV beats New Mexico, 74-58

Kris Cleburne (1) of UNLV defends against Vance Jackson (2) of New Mexico during their game at Thomas & Mack Center, Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019. Launch slideshow »

Four weeks ago, Nick Blair was sitting on the bench for the entirety of UNLV’s loss to Indiana State in the Diamond Head Classic. It was the walk-on forward’s seventh consecutive game without seeing any playing time — a streak that was only broken when he got on the floor for six meaningless minutes in a blowout loss to Bucknell two days later.

At that point, it would have been ludicrous to imagine Blair as a key figure in UNLV’s 2018-19 campaign. And yet, there he was on Tuesday, pouring in a career-high 26 points to lead the Rebels to a home win over New Mexico, 74-58.

Blair, who struggled to earn playing time in two years at Idaho before transferring to UNLV, has suddenly become an indispensable contributor in the Rebels’ rotation. Against New Mexico he drilled four 3-pointers, grabbed six rebounds and recorded a team-high plus/minus rating of +14 in his 26 minutes, helping UNLV improve to 5-1 in the Mountain West and 11-7 overall.

Blair also threw down a monster one-handed jam as part of a 21-4 run that allowed UNLV to take control late in the first half. The flash of power and athleticism served as a reminder that Blair isn’t just a feel-good story — he’s got some ability, too.

After making his final eight shots against New Mexico, Blair said his confidence level is currently as high as his impressive vertical.

“I know my teammates trust me and the coaching staff trusts me,” Blair said. “When you’ve got everybody on the team knowing you can shoot those shots and they believe in you, it’s not too hard to believe in yourself.”

Due to a rash of injuries to frontcourt players, Blair has taken on added responsibility over the last four games, and he has come through by averaging 10.5 points and seven rebounds.

Every time New Mexico tried to cut into UNLV’s double-digit lead in the second half, Blair was there to respond. He scored 16 points over the final 20 minutes, including a 3-of-3 showing from beyond the arc.

Senior point guard Noah Robotham played another sterling game, finishing with 11 points and nine assists while limiting his New Mexico counterpart, Anthony Mathis, to eight points.

As a team, UNLV connected on 14-of-25 from 3-point range, continuing a hot-shooting stretch that has seen the Rebels make 51.2 percent of their 3’s over the last three games (43-of-84).

Robotham, a high-school teammate of Blair’s at Bishop Gorman, said Blair has been a rock off the court for the Rebels all season.

He also said he’s not surprised by the way Blair has stepped up on the court.

“It’s a testament to his character,” Robotham said. “We were deep in the season and he hadn’t played a lot, but he didn’t mope, he didn’t complain. He was a consistent human being. I think when you’re a good person, good things happen for you … I don’t think it’s a surprise that he’s playing this way. It’s who he is.”

New Mexico shot just 22-of-62 from the field (35.5 percent) and hit on only 6-of-23 from long range.

UNLV’s lead never dipped below eight points in the second half, and the Rebels enjoyed a double-digit margin for the final 10 minutes as they easily dispatched UNM to secure their first season sweep of the Lobos since the 2010-11 season.

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

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