Six days ago the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels put forth one of their poorer performances of the season, losing at home to rival Nevada with the Wolf Pack meeting little resistance on the offensive end of the floor. With a lengthy (by in-season standards) layoff ahead of road games at New Mexico and No. 10 San Diego State, head coach Dave Rice’s team had a rather simple decision to make. That decision: perform with greater effort, or fold.
On Wednesday night the Runnin’ Rebels did anything but fold, shooting 50% from the field and 53.8% from three as they knocked off New Mexico 76-73 in Albuquerque. UNLV came out ready to compete from the start, something that was not the case against Nevada. And if there were any play that illustrated this, it would likely be the breakaway dunk thrown down by Bryce Dejean-Jones to give UNLV a 21-12 lead (post free throw) with 12:16 remaining. New Mexico may not defend at the level they did a season ago, but UNLV deserves credit for the way in which it attacked the Lobo defense.
The Runnin’ Rebels made good use of dribble penetration to create opportunities on the offensive end, including the use of ball screens involving New Mexico center Alex Kirk as the help defender (especially late in the shot clock). Those scoring chances helped lead to four UNLV players finishing the game in double figures.
Dejean-Jones (23 points) and Deville Smith (17) led the way scoring-wise, but this was a group effort for a team that scored 1.15 points per possession on Wednesday night. Offensively this was arguably their best performance since beating Cal-State Fullerton on December 28, and given the schedule that was a much-needed development.
Cameron Bairstow led four Lobos in double figures with 27 points and as a team New Mexico assisted on 20 of its 24 made baskets. But they shot just 6-for-22 from three on a night were improved accuracy likely would have meant a different outcome. Ultimately it was UNLV who made the decisive plays (including two defensive stops late) needed to pick up a much-needed win, a result that gives the Runnin’ Rebels some much-needed confidence heading into Saturday’s game at San Diego State.
Is UNLV back to being the team many expected to contend for the Mountain West title? We’ll learn more about that on Saturday. But for a team that looked as if its season were practically over just six days ago, UNLV displayed improved fight at The Pit and was rewarded with its best win of the season.