ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On the bright side, three of UNLV’s four remaining regular season games will be played at the Thomas & Mack Center, where the Rebels have been untouchable this season.
But that was maybe the only silver lining UNLV could take with it, as the Rebels quietly exited The Pit and headed for the airport following a sound 65-45 whooping at the hands of New Mexico on Saturday afternoon.
The win for the Lobos was their seventh straight since getting blown off of the floor by the Rebels in Las Vegas on Jan. 21. It gave them a two-game lead over both UNLV and San Diego State in the Mountain West standings, too, with four left to play. The Aztecs fell to a second-place tie with UNLV, as they were stunned in 58-56 fashion a couple hours later in the day at Air Force.
The Rebels (22-6 overall, 6-4 Mountain West) likely saw any hopes of even a share of a conference regular season title dashed. Instead, the next four games will serve different purposes for UNLV, who needs to get some of its swagger back before next month’s Mountain West tournament and has to pad its record as much as possible to help its seeding in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
“I would think that the deck is probably stacked against us a little bit, but stranger things have happened in this conference,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said afterwards. “There are a lot of teams in this league playing very well on their home floors. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played.”
The main takeaway from Saturday, though, was that the kind of basketball UNLV is playing on the road this season — especially in conference play, where they’re now 2-4 — simply won’t cut it down the road.
The Rebels appeared to be possibly swaying that downward road trend through one half in front of a sell-out crowd of 15,411 that was the loudest UNLV has played in front of away from home all year.
Despite shooting just 35.7 percent from the floor in the first half, UNLV held New Mexico (22-4, 8-2) to 30.8 percent shooting in the game’s first 20 minutes, and took a 27-26 lead into the halftime locker room. The Rebels couldn’t push the ball in the first half and were playing the game at the Lobos’ preferred pace, but were doing so with success.
Then Drew Gordon happened.
The Mountain West’s preseason Player of the Year — and after Saturday, likely the frontrunner for the postseason honor — scored five straight buckets for the Lobos in a key four-minute stretch to help his team keep up with UNLV.
Where the floodgates busted apart was just 27 seconds after his last make in that run had put New Mexico up 38-36.
Off of a Reggie Smith 3-point miss, New Mexico reserve Demetrius Walker buried a three in transition to push the host’s lead to five points. Rice then sequenced a full timeout with an upcoming television timeout to try and cool off the Lobos, but out of the second break, Tony Snell canned another three for New Mexico, making it an eight-point game with 10:51 to play.
The Rebels never seriously threatened again.
“We just didn’t make shots,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “You go back and watch the game, you see Oscar (Bellfield) had a chance to make some shots, Chace (Stanback), myself, as a collective group, we had a chance to make some shots and just didn’t.”
That, and the Rebels simply couldn’t get enough looks to warrant shooting 23.5 percent in the final 20 minutes.
After the break, UNLV went 4-of-17 from the floor, with Marshall being responsible for two of those makes and four of the attempts. He was by far UNLV’s most aggressive player on the offensive end in the second half, earning several trips to the free throw line. However, he also struggled there.
Stanback went 1-of-4 and scored four points in 23 minutes, and sat for a decent chunk of time down the stretch after Snell blew by him for a momentum-swinging dunk during a key 16-1 New Mexico run. Bellfield was just 2-of-9 from the floor, and star sophomore Mike Moser was held to just eight points and four rebounds in 30 minutes. Six of those points came off of a pair of 3-pointers in the opening minutes.
Marshall finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and scored 12 of UNLV’s 18 second-half points — the lone semi-bright spot in what was the Rebels’ weakest offensive half of the season.
Granted, defensively, this was a much different team than the one UNLV blew out, 80-63, a month ago.
The Lobos became the first team to hold the Rebels under 50 points in a game this year, but that has been their norm since that loss in Las Vegas. In their current seven-game tear, Steve Alford’s club is only allowing opponents to score 49.6 points per game.
Until Saturday, they’d been sparked by the resurgence of sophomore point guard Kendall Williams on the offensive end since falling at UNLV. He was held to just seven points against the Rebels, but it hardly mattered, as it was a testament to the type of team that they’ve slowly become.
“They’re playing as a team,” Marshall said. “No one guy is trying to do everything. They’re working on the inside, then outside they have the balance right now.
Added Moser: “It was definitely real different. They obviously knew a lot of our stuff, they were just kind of one step ahead of us, and we couldn’t make shots.”
Snell, who didn’t score a point in the team’s last two games, contributed 12, including two huge 3-pointers and two monster dunks. Walker contributed nine key points and several hustle plays in 16 minutes off of the bench.
As for Gordon, he followed up a 17-point, 17-rebound performance in Wednesday’s road upset of San Diego State with a whale of an afternoon, posting 27 points and 20 rebounds.
He repeatedly went to work on the UNLV big men one-on-one and scored efficiently, he hit a series of crucial mid-range jumpers and, most importantly, was the driving force behind New Mexico’s 41-33 edge on the glass.
“That baseline screen they set just kind of puts you in a bad situation, having to help, then get back on the top side,” Moser said of having to defend his former UCLA teammate. “We were having a real tough time doing it.”
Added Rice: “When he’s right, good like he was today, they can play with anyone in the country.”
The Lobos played the inside-out game to perfection in the second half. UNLV tried to do the same, but the combination of struggling to finish shots and, at times, even get open looks kept them from doing so successfully. That ended up being the difference.
The Rebels play at home on Wednesday night against Boise State (13-12, 3-7) then host Air Force (13-11, 3-7) on Saturday. In their own building against the league’s two teams tied for last place, it’s a golden opportunity to get their confidence back up.
UNLV’s only remaining true road game comes a week from Wednesday at Colorado State, but this late in the season, it seems almost impossible to prove wrong the notion that the Rebels are just not a good, consistent team away from home.
The proof, at this point, is simply in the numbers, and the sample size keeps growing larger.