If it wasn’t before Wednesday night, it’s official now.
The New Mexico Lobos may be the two-time defending Mountain West champion, but they are no longer playing like the leaders of the pack.
The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, coming off back-to-back losses, came into the Pit on Wednesday night with more energy and largely had their way with the Lobos defense in a 76-73 win in front of 15,351 fans.
“There’s just a lot of things that really bother me that I’m going to address,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said about his team’s performance. “They used to have a killer instinct in them. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t brought that edge out of them, but I’ll get that out of them. They’ve got it. They’re going to find it.”
The Rebels (11-6, 2-2 Mountain West) jumped on the Lobos (12-3, 3-1) early, opening up a 16-point first-half lead at 28-12 on a Kevin Olekaibe 3-pointer less than 10 minutes into the game. UNLV went on an 18-3 scoring run after UNM leading scorer Cameron Bairstow went to the bench with his second foul picked up with 14:24 remaining in the first half.
Upon Bairstow’s return, the Lobos gradually clawed their way back into the game, but never once regained the lead they had at 9-8. The loss coupled with a San Diego State win Wednesday means UNM falls out of at least a tie for first place in the league standings.
“We answered every one of New Mexico’s runs,” UNLV head coach Dave Rice said. “… There’s no way to stop Cam and Alex (Kirk, UNM’s 7-foot center). They’re the best two low-post scoring tandem in the league — they’re just fantastic. We wrestled with that all week long. Pick your poison. … If we double down, they’re going to make wide open 3’s. So it was all about energy.”
It wasn’t that the Lobos were without energy throughout, but they certainly seemed to lack it on the defensive end of the court, especially in crucial moments.
“I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but I think they’ve lost an edge — an edge they’ve always had,” Neal said.
Bairstow, who scored a game-high 27 points, seemed to agree with his coach.
“Unfortunately there is an aspect of that on the defensive end that we did have last year in getting into people and really sitting down and guarding and making it hard for teams to score, which I thinking wasn’t there at times this game,” Bairstow said.
The Rebels’ guards, led by Bryce Dejean-Jones’ 23 points and 11-of-13 free throws, had their way with starting the UNLV offense on the perimeter and consistently blowing by UNM perimeter defenders to get in the paint and either get fouled (UNLV was 21-of-27 from the free-throw line) or kick it out for a jumper — either deep inside the arc or with one of their seven 3-pointers.
“They made seven 3s. In the first half, they were beating us to the rim. We were getting beat on dribble drive; we weren’t getting beat on 3-point shots,” Neal said. “… It had nothing to do with open 3-point shots or collapsing, we just got beat off the dribble and weren’t helping the teammate. That’s not what our defense was predicated on since we’ve been here.”
The Lobos cut the lead to 66-64 on a Bairstow bucket and later trailed by just one in the final minute of the game before two Dejean-Jones free throws with 26.8 seconds remaining pushed the final score to 76-73. A missed Cullen Neal 3-pointer at the buzzer was UNM’s final chance to avoid the loss.
Bairstow, despite two early fouls, ended up with a game-high 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Kirk had another double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) and Kendall Williams had 15 points, nine assists and zero turnovers.
But none of it was enough to match the Rebels energy, or Dejean-Jones’ 23 points. Deville Smith added 17, Olekaibe 14 and Khem Birch 11. UNLV shot 50 percent (24-of-48) and 53.8 percent from 3-point range (7-of-13).
“We’ve got to figure some stuff out defensively,” Neal said. “I thought they would come in with a little better mindset. A little tougher mindset.”
UNLV 76, NEW MEXICO 73
R. Smith 2-6 0-1 4, Birch 3-6 5-6 11, Olekaibe 5-7 0-0 14, Dejean-Jones 6-12 11-13 23, D. Smith 6-9 2-2 17, Wood 0-1 0-0 0, Lopez-Sosa 0-3 0-0 0, K. Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Kendrick 2-4 3-5 7. Totals 24-48 21-27 76.
NEW MEXICO (12-4)
Bairstow 10-16 7-9 27, Kirk 5-11 2-2 12, Greenwood 2-7 0-0 6, K. Williams 3-8 6-6 15, Delaney 4-7 1-2 10, Thomas 0-1 0-0 0, Aget 0-0 0-0 0, Neal 0-3 3-3 3, Banyard 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-54 19-22 73.
Halftime—UNLV 46-42. 3-Point Goals—UNLV 7-13 (Olekaibe 4-5, D. Smith 3-5, R. Smith 0-1, Dejean-Jones 0-2), New Mexico 6-22 (K. Williams 3-6, Greenwood 2-7, Delaney 1-3, Thomas 0-1, Kirk 0-2, Neal 0-3). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—UNLV 26 (Birch 11), New Mexico 33 (Kirk 11). Assists—UNLV 8 (Dejean-Jones, Kendrick 2), New Mexico 20 (K. Williams 9). Total Fouls—UNLV 19, New Mexico 21. A—15,351.