This rabble-rousing, Rebels-routing New Mexico men’s basketball team is running away from the rest of the Mountain West Conference — and almost certainly into the national rankings.
In an absolutely electric Pit atmosphere and before a national television audience, senior Drew Gordon and the Lobos crushed 11th-ranked UNLV 65-45 on Saturday for their second win against a top 25 team in four days.
Gordon became the first Lobo in more than 35 years to post a 20-20 performance, scoring 27 points to go with 20 rebounds.
Coupled with their 77-67 win at 13th-ranked San Diego State on Wednesday, the Mountain West Conference-leading Lobos (22-4, 8-2) should fly into the top 25 polls for the first time this season.
“It’s the last half of a couple of our (players’) senior seasons, and we need to go out with a bang,” said Gordon, who had 17 points and 17 rebounds in the Lobos’ win at San Diego State on Wednesday. “Beating these two teams was something we needed, especially to get into the rankings. Beating San Diego State and beating UNLV, they have to put us in the top 25.”
The Lobos are also putting a choke-hold on the MWC regular-season title.
Air Force beat San Diego State 58-56 on Saturday, giving New Mexico a two-game lead over the SDSU (20-6, 6-4) and UNLV (22-6, 6-4) with four games left.
New Mexico used an awesome display of defense to hold the run-and-gun Rebels to their lowest output of the season — and just 18 points after intermission. The Lobos erased an eight-point, first-half deficit and took control midway through the second half on the way to their seventh straight victory.
It’s the second straight home game in which the Lobos held an opponent under 20 points in the second half, having kept Wyoming to only 15 after the break in a 48-38 win a week earlier.
“I don’t know if we’re the best team in this league yet,” said UNM coach Steve Alford, “but there is no team in the last month that has guarded the way we have guarded.”
UNLV entered the game averaging 80.1 points a game and shooting 47.4 percent from the floor. It was 14-of-45 from the field (31.1 percent) and 6-of-21 from 3-point range (28.6 percent) against the Lobos’ stifling defense in a game that was telecast by CBS to about half of the country.
After UNLV big man Brice Massamba tied the game 34-34 with 13:28 left, the Rebels went more than six minutes without a field goal. They got back-to-back scores from Anthony Marshall — a 3-pointer and a dunk — around the seven-minute mark, but didn’t score again from the floor.
“To hold a team like this, very high-octane offense, hard to guard — and you hold them to just four field goals in one half — you’ve just got to take your hats off to our young men,” Alford said.
Both teams shot like they had their hats over their eyes much of the first half as the magnitude of the occasion seemed to be getting the best of them.
UNLV was the first to break through, going on a 12-2 run to lead 21-13 with seven minutes left in the half. The Rebels’ leading scorer, sophomore forward Mike Moser, had eight points to that point, but never scored again.
After UNM called time-out, Gordon dunked for a three-point play to ignite a 10-0 Lobo burst. UNLV got right back on top and led 27-26 at the half.
The teams then stumbled again for the first few minutes after intermission — UNM being 8-of-31 from the field at one point — before Gordon took control.
The 6-foot-9 post, who had “the game of my life,” used an array of dazzling moves, physical board play and a handful of jumpers to score 10 straight Lobo points when the game was still tight.
UNLV tied it at 36 as Marshall went 1-of-2 from the line on back-to-back possessions before Gordon drained a soft jumper that got the sell-out crowd of 15,411 rocking.
Moments later, the rocking turned to ear-shattering — and then mind-numbing.
Sophomores Demetrius Walker and Tony Snell nailed back-to-back 3s, then Snell drove home a vicious base-line slam. Gordon capped off the 12-0 run to make it was 48-36 with just under nine minutes left, and the Lobos were on their way to avenging an 80-63 defeat last month in Las Vegas.
“Coach told me to be aggressive,” said Snell, who had gone scoreless the past two games. “I had two bad games, but he told me to stay aggressive. I’m not perfect.”
Gordon, however, was pretty close on Saturday.
He was 13-of-20 from the floor and had three steals and two assists to more than offset his three early turnovers, and became the first Lobo to record a 20-20 outing since Jimmy Allen had 21 points and 20 rebounds at New Mexico State on Dec. 1, 1976.
Gordon said he was extra motivated by the Pit crowd, which he said was “definitely the best” in his two seasons at UNM.
“The fans were crazy,” Gordon said. “It was tough to hear ourselves think. Hats off to our fans to coming out and supporting us for an early game, and probably the craziest game of my college career.”
UNM at Colorado State, 8 p.m.
TV: The Mtn.
Radio: KKOB-AM (770)