Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 | 3 a.m.
With 38 seconds remaining against New Mexico, UNLV led by five points, freshman guard Oscar Bellfield walked to the free-throw line and a Thomas & Mack Center crowd started heading for the exits.
The fans who stayed were left squirming in their seats until the final buzzer as the Rebels missed five of their next seven free throws to give the Lobos a chance.
Many UNLV players said they felt fortunate to secure a 60-58 victory over New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams.
“That definitely shouldn’t happen on our home court,” said UNLV senior power forward Joe Darger.
“When you’re up by five with less than a minute, there shouldn’t be any doubt,” said Rebels senior forward René Rougeau. “That was a bit too close, especially seeing how it came down to a last shot for them.
“We have a lot of work to do still.”
It was an eighth consecutive victory for UNLV (13-2, 1-0 in league), but the Rebels weren’t exactly elated after such recent highs in a home win over Arizona and Wednesday’s thriller at Louisville.
New Mexico (9-6, 0-1) lost for the second time in its past eight games.
Lobos senior guard Chad Toppert missed a wide-open 3-pointer with three seconds left, and senior swingman Tony Danridge’s tip rolled off the rim.
Darger grabbed the ball as time expired.
“Free throws are huge,” he said. “If we would have hit free throws, this game wouldn’t have been this close down the stretch. We have to work on free throws, sliding our feet and taking care of the ball.”
Bellfield missed the front end of a one-and-one situation to give the Lobos hope, but they didn’t capitalize since Danridge missed a close shot at the other end.
UNLV senior forward Mo Rutledge yanked down the board and got fouled with 26.3 seconds left, but he missed both freebies.
Twelve seconds later, New Mexico sophomore guard Jonathan Willis, who had hit four 3-point shots on the season, sank one from just left of the top of the key to cut the Lobos’ deficit to 58-56.
A tick later, with 13.4 seconds left, UNLV sophomore guard Tre’Von Willis was sent to the line and he launched an air ball on his first of two attempts.
“It slipped,” Willis said. “Crazy.”
In the locker room afterward, he joked that he just tried to make the game closer with his teammates.
“But I apologized,” Willis said. “That will never happen again.”
He hit the second free throw to make it 59-56.
Then Darger fouled Toppert with 9.4 seconds left, and Toppert hit both free throws to get the Lobos to within a point of the Rebels.
Before the Rebels could inbound the ball, Willis was hacked and sent to the line. He again missed the first free throw. It was short, again. But this time it at least hit the front of the rim.
He swished the second for a 60-58 advantage.
Toppert sailed down for a 3-point attempt with Rougeau a step or two away from him.
“You don’t want to see people getting looks like that with the game in the balance,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “We feel fortunate, in a way, to come away with a win.”
As expected, Rebels senior guard Wink Adams played for the first time since tweaking an abdominal muscle Dec. 23. He first practiced Friday and said he was less than full strength against New Mexico.
To wide applause, before a crowd of 14,189, Kruger put in Adams 7 1/2 minutes into the game. Three minutes later, Adams missed a 3-pointer from the left side.
He missed the other five shots he launched, too, during his 18 minutes of action.
So Adams went scoreless for a second game in a row. Those are the only two times in 116 career games that he failed to get any points. It was also only the 11th time he didn’t start as a Rebel.
He agreed that he looked hesitant and said he played at about “75 to 80 percent.”
“I was nervous to do a lot of things … timid,” Adams said. “It took away from my aggressiveness. Hopefully, by Saturday, I’ll be 90 percent. I’ll be able to get to the basket, like usual.”
UNLV plays TCU at Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday afternoon.
The player who got to the basket with regularity Saturday night was New Mexico senior Daniel Faris, a 6-9, 245-pound power forward from Albuquerque.
A minute into the game, he executed a spin move down low, got fouled and sank both free throws. Soon afterward, he stole the ball from Bellfield.
Then he hit a left hook from the left post on UNLV junior center Darris Santee, and he left the Rebels’ post players in his wake.
Faris, who went eight-for-13 from the field, scored a game-high and season-best 19 points.
“That was the game plan,” Faris said in a whisper after losing his voice in Tuesday night’s victory over New Mexico State. “We tried to go inside, and I was able to finish a few tonight.
“I missed some easy ones, though. Our defense was pretty good most of the night. We made a few mental errors toward the end and they took advantage. They’re a very good team.”
The Rebels went two-for-seven at the line in the final minute.
“Lucky for us, they opened the door for us,” Faris said. “This team doesn’t stop fighting. We have a lot of fight in us. We just couldn’t pull it out tonight.”
Kruger denied that there was any hangover from that exciting finish in Louisville on New Year’s Eve, but some of his players said otherwise.
“Some new guys might have overlooked this game after a big game like Louisville,” Adams said.
“You know, as much as we don’t want to say there was, obviously there was,” Darger said. “We didn’t come out and play with the intensity and dictate like we like to. We kind of let them push us around.”