LAS VEGAS, Nev. — On Monday, Kendall Williams was clear, confident and maybe even a bit cocky when he talked about wanting revenge on the UNLV Rebels.
Wednesday night, in front of 13,701 fans in the Thomas & Mack center, the University of New Mexico senior backed up every ounce of bravado, scoring 29-points in a 68-56 win over the Rebels.
“I think it speaks to his senior leadership, but I (also) think it just shows just how dang good he is and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said. “Everyone wants to talk about (Lobo teammate Cameron Bairstow’s) great year, and he’s had an unbelievable year, but it would be hard for me to find a guard as good as that kid (Williams) when we need him to be. Tonight, we needed him to be and he was awesome.”
Williams, who had never scored more than 15 points against UNLV in nine previous games, had 17 by halftime on Wednesday and set the tone from the start, opening the scoring one minute into the game with a 3-pointer, putting the Lobos up 3-0. UNLV never led or even tied the score after that.
Williams ended the night shooting 11-of-17 (64.7 percent) from the floor, 4-of-7 (57.1 percent) from 3-point range and a perfect 3-of-3 from the free throw line to go along with seven rebounds and three assists.
“I just played with a lot of confidence,” said Williams. “Like I said on Monday, I felt like I was in a good groove and I’m just going to stick with that going into Saturday.”
The win pushed UNM to 20-5 overall and 11-2 in Mountain West play, one game back of No. 6 San Diego State (23-2, 12-1) who comes to the Pit on Saturday night. With five games left, Wednesday’s win all but wraps up the Lobos and Aztecs will be the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the March 12-15 league tournament, also on the Thomas & Mack floor.
Bairstow added 18 points and six rebounds for UNM, but struggled shooting the ball both from the field (8-of-20) and from the free throw line (2-of-7) in a game where plenty of fouls (40 combined) were called both ways leading to 41 free throw attempts (UNLV was 15-of-26 for 57.7 percent and UNM was 8-of-15 for 53.3 percent).
The frequent whistles from the referees led to UNM center Alex Kirk playing just 16 minutes with foul trouble while UNLV forward Roscoe Smith was in the same boat and played just 23 minutes.
UNM, which out-rebounded the Rebels 44-39, held the Rebels to 20 fewer points than in the Jan. 15 loss in the Pit thanks to two primary factors on defense: They didn’t allow the Rebels to get out and run in transition much and they defended the 3-point line off ball screens much better. UNLV was just 3-of-21 from the 3-point line with two of those triples coming in garbage time after the game had already been decided.
“I would say the pick and roll was a lot better this time around,” Bairstow said. “That was the key in the last game — guards were coming off (screens) and did most of their scoring (off that). I think we did a better job of that tonight.”
After a Hugh Greenwood jumper pushed the Lobos lead to 17 points at 52-35 with 13:32 remaining, the Rebels gave their last big push to make a game of it.
UNLV’s Christian Wood blocked a Kirk shot with 12:06 remaining in the game on a play Neal felt warranted a foul being called on his big man. Instead, the Rebels, who struggled in their halfcourt offense much of the night, got out in transition, leading to a Khem Birch dunk. As the dunk occurred, Neal was called for a technical foul for arguing the non-call on Kirk.
“I was just trying to protect my player,” Neal said.
When Rebels senior guard Kevin Olekaibe sank both technical free throws, the Lobos lead was cut to 52-39.
That four-point sequence for UNLV started to a 12-2 scoring run that cut the lead to 54-47 with 8:42 remaining.
As expected, though, it was Williams with his fourth 3-pointer of the game with 8:03 remaining that ended the scoring run for UNLV, not to mention their hopes of a win. The Rebels never had it closer than 9 the rest of the game.
UNLV had three players score in double figures, led by 11 from Birch, who also grabbed 12 rebounds. Smith also had a double-double for UNLV with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Backup post Christian Wood blocked five UNM shots and scored eight points.
NEW MEXICO (20-5, 11-2 MWC)
Greenwood 2-3 0-0 4, K. Williams 11-17 3-3 29, Delaney 1-2 1-2 3, Bairstow 8-20 2-7 18, Kirk 3-7 2-3 8, Thomas 0-1 0-0 0, Aget 0-0 0-0 0, Neal 1-6 0-0 3, Lindsay 1-3 0-0 3. Totals 27-59 8-15 68.
UNLV (17-9, 8-5 MWC)
R. Smith 2-8 6-8 10, Birch 4-11 3-10 11, Olekaibe 2-9 3-4 8, Cook 0-1 0-0 0, Dejean-Jones 4-12 1-2 10, Wood 3-6 2-2 8, Lopez-Sosa 0-0 0-0 0, K. Smith 1-1 0-0 2, Kendrick 0-2 0-0 0, Morant 0-0 0-0 0, D. Smith 3-10 0-0 7. Totals 19-60 15-26 56.
Halftime—New Mexico 38-29. 3-Point Goals—New Mexico 6-15 (K. Williams 4-7, Lindsay 1-1, Neal 1-4, Thomas 0-1, Kirk 0-1, Greenwood 0-1), UNLV 3-21 (Dejean-Jones 1-5, D. Smith 1-5, Olekaibe 1-6, Kendrick 0-1, Cook 0-1, R. Smith 0-1, Wood 0-2). Fouled Out—Lopez-Sosa. Rebounds—New Mexico 44 (Greenwood, K. Williams 7), UNLV 39 (Birch 12). Assists—New Mexico 11 (Greenwood 4), UNLV 6 (D. Smith 3). Total Fouls—New Mexico 23, UNLV 17. Technical—New Mexico Bench. A—13,701.