New Mexico may have come to Las Vegas for Saturday night’s crucial Mountain West Conference tilt a desperate team, but it did not come prepared to deal with UNLV’s most deadly weapon.
The fast break.
After hanging with the Rebels for a half, UNLV turned up the pressure on the defensive end, created outlet opportunity after outlet opportunity and capitalized on nearly every one of them.
The end result was a resounding 80-63 UNLV victory in front of the season’s best home crowd—a sellout showing of 18,577. Three games into the league schedule, the win kept the Rebels within range of front-running San Diego State, while New Mexico—the preseason favorite to win the MWC title—dropped to two games back in the loss column with 11 to play.
New Mexico also had a potential flaw exposed that tempo-minded teams might key on moving forward.
“I don’t think they were ready to run like that today,” UNLV forward Mike Moser said. “We had numbers just about every time.”
And afterwards, it felt like the only fast-break opportunities UNLV didn’t cash in on were the ones where the Rebels were too unselfish and made a pass too many.
New Mexico (15-4 overall, 1-2 MWC) scored four points to pull to within four at 39-35 heading into the half, as it was a tight game throughout to that point.
The key for UNLV (18-3, 2-1) at that point was settling in on the defensive end.
“I think we were just kind of over-thinking things,” Moser said. “New Mexico, they run a lot of plays, and we went over every one of them. Once we started to realize what they were doing, we just kind of played basketball and it felt like a natural flow with our defense. We were able to help, be in the right spots. I think it just took us some time to figure everything out.”
When UNLV got everything figured out, New Mexico had no counter-punch.
The Rebels’ sweltering defense around the perimeter as the game wore on led to 21 Lobo turnovers. From there, UNLV capitalized time and again, turning in a 26-0 advantage for the game on fast break points.
There were dunks, there were lobs, there were pull-up jumpers and there were fancy layups. Either way, almost every time UNLV got a transition opportunity, New Mexico looked flummoxed as far as knowing how to defend it.
“We definitely kind of sensed that, and credit goes to our defense,” UNLV guard Anthony Marshall said. “We really broke it down, took them out of things where they had to go to ball screens, and our bigs did a great job calling out the screens. It was a great group effort.”
UNLV recorded 11 steals, and Marshall was responsible for four of them.
It was simply another bright spot on another stellar stat line for Marshall, who may be the early season frontrunner for Mountain West Player of the Year. He finished the night with 13 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Through three league games, he’s averaging 22 points, 6.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds per contest.
Mike Moser and Carlos Lopez each led five Rebels in double figures in scoring with 14 points apiece.
Moser had 10 rebounds as well, giving him his 10th double-double of the season, while he also played a part in keeping former UCLA teammate and preseason Mountain West Player of the Year Drew Gordon from taking over on either end of the floor.
Lopez’s 14 points were the fruits of a spirited 14 minutes off of the bench, during which he made several key plays to not only help pad UNLV’s lead, but keep the crowd energized.
Chace Stanback nailed two late dagger-like 3-pointers to polish off a 13-point effort, while Justin Hawkins scored 10 points in 21 minutes off of the bench, including hitting two key trifectas of his own.
As a team, UNLV shot 51.7 percent from the floor and held New Mexico to 38.6 percent. The Lobos won the rebounding battle, 38-33, but UNLV had the edge on the glass in the second half when the game was ultimately decided.
Now, what matters most is where both teams go from here.
UNLV closes out the first half of the shorter-than-usual league schedule with three of four games on the road. The Rebels will travel to face Boise State for the first time as a conference foe on Wednesday night. The Broncos dropped their fourth straight on Saturday at TCU and are off to an 0-3 start in league play, but have been a much better team at home than on the road this season, going 9-1 so far at Taco Bell Arena.
As for New Mexico, the Lobos now find themselves far more desperate than they were before coming to town.
Not only are they in a tough spot now as far as competing for a Mountain West regular season crown, but they also have an NCAA tournament résumé that needs some serious cushioning moving forward. They have yet to defeat a ranked team or down an opponent in the RPI Top 50. However, the schedule is friendly to Steve Alford’s team before they face San Diego State and UNLV back-to-back again on Feb. 15 and Feb. 18, respectively.
The next time around, winning both of those games could be the difference between a potential NCAA tournament bid or a second consecutive berth in the NIT.
In terms of matching up with UNLV, they now know what they’ll need to be able to stop.
“We wanted it to be a fast-paced game, we got the game at the speed we wanted to play,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We’re at our best when we’re getting defensive rebounds and pushing the ball, and if we can get all five guys running and in the proper spots, we’re hard to guard.
“We were the aggressors.”