Las Vegas, Nevada, seems like a fitting venue for Thursday’s high-stakes women’s basketball showdown.
The University of New Mexico and UNLV, both riding lengthy hot streaks, will square off at Cox Pavilion with first place in the Mountain West standings on the line. The conference-leading Lobos (17-4, 8-0) bring a nine-game winning streak to Las Vegas, while the second-place Lady Rebels (15-4, 7-1) have won nine of their last 10 and are 8-1 at home.
As for the stakes:
• UNLV can move into a first-place tie with a victory and would have split the season series with New Mexico. (The Lobos won at the Pit, 71-68, on Jan. 3.)
• UNM can effectively take a three-game lead over UNLV with a win – two games in the standings and a tiebreaker edge if they sweep the season series.
Thursday marks just the halfway point in MWC play, and much can still happen in a typically unpredictable conference. But with eight of the Mountain West’s 11 teams already having at least four conference losses (Nevada is the other exception at 13-5, 5-1), round two between UNM and UNLV has the feel of a showdown.
Lobos coach Mike Bradbury typically avoids focusing on the big picture but conceded Thursday’s matchup is not just another game.
“Yeah, for a game halfway through the conference schedule, it is a big game,” Bradbury said. “We never talk about the standings or tournament seeding or things like that, but our players know this one’s important. They know UNLV is a really good team.”
Shaiquel McGruder, who racked up 17 points and 15 rebounds in the season’s first meeting, expects another tight battle.
“We’ve got to be locked in, focused and ready to go,” McGruder said. “We know (the Rebels) will be.”
UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque has not even attempted to play down Thursday’s contest.
“It is a huge game,” La Rocque told unlvrebels.com. “Our team is well aware of that. We’re not shying away from the implications that this game could have on seeding and where we want to be in conference play.”
UNM (77.4 points per game) and UNLV (75.6) feature the Mountain West’s top scoring offenses, but they rack up points in different ways.
The Lobos are all about 3-pointers and scoring in transition. LaTascya Duff (56 3s), Jaedyn De La Cerda (46) and LaTora Duff (42) rank 1-2-3 in the Mountain West in 3-pointers, while McGruder leads the Lobos in scoring and accumulates many of her points on fast breaks.
The Rebels shoot a solid 34% from 3-point range but prefer more of a physical, inside-out approach.
Posts Desi-Ray Young and Nneka Obiazor touch the ball on most possessions and can either score or kick it out to an open teammate. UNLV leads the MWC in rebound margin (+11.3) and leads by wide margins in free throws made (276) and attempted (371).
“They’re hard to stop because their offense is really efficient,” Bradbury said of the Rebels. “Everyone out there can score and if you help too much, they make you pay.”
Both teams may employ a new wrinkle or two for Thursday’s rematch, but Bradbury does not expect either side to make dramatic changes.
“At this point, we are who we are,” he said. “We’re going to do what we’re best at and so will UNLV. Whoever executes better will probably win.”