LAS VEGAS, Nev. — It wasn’t the zone defense this time. And it wasn’t the point guard play.
In the gym where the Lobos seemed to turn their season around one year ago, this year’s UNM men’s basketball team found a new way to fall short on Tuesday night in a season that continues to leave fans frustrated and scratching their heads.
UNLV walk-on guard Nick Blair, a transfer from Idaho who had played in just five games with a season high of nine points, went off for 26 points and the Rebels scored 23 points off turnovers to comfortably beat the Lobos, 74-58, in front of an announced Thomas & Mack Center crowd of 8,432.
“He was terrific,” UNM head coach Paul Weir said. “Obviously going into the game, we know who we wanted to take away as far as No. 24 — (Joel) Ntambwe. I thought we did a pretty good job. We were worried about their guard presser. Blair got loose and took some 3s and made some 3s. And then once he started to make some 3s, we adjusted and at that point he became a really tough matchup for us. He was the best player on the court tonight.”
The Lobos fall to 9-10 on the season and 3-4 in Mountain West play. The Rebels, led be former New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies, completed the season sweep of UNM while improving to 11-7 overall and 5-1 in MWC play, tied with No. 7 Nevada and Fresno State atop the league standings.
It was the first sweep of the Lobos by UNLV since it happened to Steve Alford’s Lobos in 2011.
The Lobos got a double-double from Carlton Bragg with 12 points and 12 rebounds, and Vance Jackson had 16 points and eight rebounds, but UNM couldn’t take advantage — again — of its size advantage in the post.
Part of that had to do with turnovers by the Lobos. On Tuesday, it was 14 turnovers, including 10 in the first half, and the Rebels turning those miscues into 23 points. UNM scored two points off 11 Rebels turnovers.
UNM shot just 35.5 percent overall in the game, 26.1 percent from 3-point range and 53.3 percent from the free throw line. The Lobos had just six assists in the game compared to 16 for UNLV. UNM’s six assists were a season low just three days after a season high (vs. a Division I opponent) 20 against the Wyoming Cowboys.
The Rebels shooting wasn’t great overall (43.9 percent), but scorched the nets from beyond the arc, hitting 14-of-25 3-pointers (56.0 percent) for a team that was shooting under 30 percent before league play began three weeks ago.
“Defensively, I thought we were pretty solid throughout,” Weir said. “I think they obviously made some shots at some different points. We just could never get into any kind of offensive rhythm. It was really unfortunate and I think when you’re turning the ball over like that — 23 to 2 in points off turnovers — it’s really hard to overcome.”
The Rebels led by as many as 19 and the game was never closer than eight points in the second half after a key first half run erased a promising start for UNM.
In a stretch of 6 minutes, 27 seconds late in the first half, UNM didn’t hit a field goal. The Lobos went 0-for-8 from the field in that stretch while the Rebels went on a 16-3 scoring run (all three UNM points were from the free throw lone).
In the stretch, the Lobos missed a dunk (Vladimir Pinchuk), missed a layup (Makuach Maluach) and had a 3-pointer waived off when Dane Kuiper stepped out of bounds.
The Rebels, meanwhile, hit four 3-pointers in that run, including three on three consecutive possessions.
The score went from 18-17, UNLV leading, to 34-20, Rebels in control with 2:25 left before Keith McGee drove the lane for a layup to stop the bleeding.
UNLV took a 39-27 lead into the locker room at the break.
The Lobos had 10 first half turnovers (UNLV had 15 first half points off those turnovers), were 20-of-10 from 3 and were called for 12 fouls in the first 20 minutes.
NO DRINNON: Freshman point guard Drue Drinnon did not make the trip, instead staying back in Albuquerque while under concussion protocol stemming from a hard fall he took in practice last Thursday.
NOTES: The Lobos played mostly man-to-man defense, but did sprinkle in some zone. The first such time came with 14:10 showing on the clock in the first half when UNM tried a 1-3-1 zone look. The result of the possession was a Dane Kuiper steal. …
Referee David Hall broke a finger when accidentally kicked by a UNLV player while calling a foul with 9:39 left in the first half. Hall did not return to the game and referees John Higgins and Bo Boroski were left to call the rest of the game as a two-man crew. …
McGee scored in double figures for the second straight game (12 points). …
Kuiper fouled out with with zero points in 21 minutes played.
Box score: UNLV 74, New Mexico 58
UP NEXT: Saturday, Utah State at UNM, 2 p.m., CBS Sports Network, 770 AM/94.5 FM