LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The decibel level inside the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday afternoon was, at times, deafening.
And yet none of what the announced crowd of 18,500 rabid fans could muster rivaled just how loudly New Mexico’s Silent Assassin announced his presence on the national stage that is March Madness.
Tony Snell drained five 3-pointers and scored a game-high 21 points to lead No. 15 New Mexico past UNLV 63-56 for the Lobos’ second consecutive Mountain West Conference tournament championship.
“The guy who really got away from us today is an NBA player,” UNLV head coach Dave Rice said. “There’s no doubt that Tony Snell is going to play in that league for a long time with the things he’s able to do.”
Snell threw dagger after dagger at the Rebels’ title hopes in the second half, at one point scoring 13 straight UNM points, turning a one-point Lobos lead at 46-45 into a comfortable 59-53 lead with less than a minute left to play and securing MWC tournament MVP honors in the process. In three tournament games, Snell averaged 17.7 points per game and was 12-for-20 (60 percent) on 3-point shots.
“I just have more confidence now,” said Snell, the painfully quiet shooting guard who added three assists to his stat line in the win. “My teammates always encourage me.”
As many bodies as UNLV (25-9) threw Snell’s way, and as hard as the Rebels made him work to get open with as physical a defense as the Lobos (29-5) have seen in weeks, the only battle scar the 6-foot-7 junior guard had to show for it was a gash on his left palm suffered when cutting down the net after the game.
That net, the one that once again was draped around the neck of head coach Steve Alford after the Lobos’ win, has come to represent as much pride from Lobos fans — four regular season titles in five seasons and back-to-back tournament championships — as resentment from others around the league.
And it was a question asked of Alford during his postgame address with the media.
“Fans like it,” Alford told a reporter from another market in the league, referring to the net. “It’s like my red blazer. I haven’t worn a red blazer before, either. It’s not like they’re a fashion statement.”
While it was hard to ascertain exactly how many Lobo fans were in attendance at Saturday’s game, as UNLV fans also wore red, it was clear UNM fans were louder most of the game.
UNLV players, and freshman phenom Anthony Bennett in particular, did everything they could early on to remind everyone whose gym the game was being played in.
Bennett scored UNLV’s first 11 points and 13 of its first 15, including three monster dunks and a 3-pointer that gave the Rebels an 11-9 lead with 14:44 remaining in the first half.
But the Lobos defense adjusted, thanks in large part to senior Chad Adams’ insertion into the lineup. Adams drew the Bennett assignment much of the rest of the game, helping limit the UNLV star to just one basket in the final 32 minutes. Bennett finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
“That’s who our team is,” Alford said of the adjustments that shut Bennett down. “That wasn’t coaching. That’s who our team is. That’s a credit to our players.”
On offense, Lobos big men Cameron Bairstow, who joined Snell on the all-tournament team, and Alex Kirk were giving the Rebels trouble in the paint. Bairstow had nine points and seven rebounds. Kirk was credited with two blocks, though he got his hand on at least a third and altered several other shots by driving UNLV guards.
When Bennett was being stymied by the Lobos’ defense down low, the Rebel guards were successful at times getting loose in transition. Katin Reinhardt had 11 points and sank a pair of 3-pointers, including one at the buzzer to end the first half that seemingly gave UNLV momentum.
Bryce DeJean-Jones, who scored a UNLV-high 19 points on five 3-pointers, got going late in the second half with back-to-back 3s that cut the Lobos’ lead to 56-53 with 2 minutes to play.
But the Lobos got the clutch 3-pointer from Snell and once again closed out the game, and the Mountain West season, with their patented defense — using a steal by Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams with 12 seconds remaining to set up a 360-degree slam dunk.
Williams finished with 12 points and seven assists while Hugh Greenwood had nine points, seven rebounds and five assists, leading another balanced UNM attack that continually took advantage of every opportunity UNLV gave them.
UNM held UNLV to 33.9 percent shooting and just 56 points, 16.1 lower than their regular season average of 72.1 points per game.
“If you make a mistake, they’re going to make you pay,” Rice said. “That’s what good teams do. Every time we made a mistake in the second half, they made us pay. That, quite frankly, was the difference in the game.”
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