Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 | 3 a.m.
Maybe New Mexico’s Chad Toppert was too wide open.
With the game on the line, the senior guard spotted up from the right arc at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday night and let fly with what would have been the game-winning 3-pointer with three seconds left.
“Those are the kind of shots that you shoot on your own where you pretend you’re in last-second situations,” said Toppert, who fired up the uncontested jumper as UNLV defender Rene Rougeau slid by him.
“When I released it, it felt pretty good. But it wasn’t able to fall tonight.”
It wasn't just the crowd of 14,189 that gasped as Toppert’s shot bounced high into the air, off the back iron and into the outstretched palm of Lobo Tony Danridge, who missed the ensuing tip-in at the buzzer, allowing UNLV to escape with a 60-58 victory in a Mountain West Conference opener for both teams.
“We definitely dodged a bullet,” said UNLV senior Wink Adams, who normally would have been on the court on defense. Instead, he watched the play unravel from the sideline, playing limited minutes because of his lingering abdominal strain.
“When he shot it I thought it was going in. He’s one of the best shooters out there and he was wide open, so I was like ‘Oh my God.’”
New Mexico coach Steve Alford shared such a sentiment, considering his Lobos missed a great opportunity to snap the Rebels’ 25-game win streak over Mountain West opponents in the Thomas & Mack Center.
“This is the team that’s picked to win our league, obviously the best team in the league and we fought them tooth and nail,” Alford said of the Lobos, who dropped to 9-6 overall.
“Great crowd, great atmosphere for our young guys to be in. I told them I’m upset, because we had them. We had an outstanding team on their home floor and we let them off the hook.”
The Lobos’ largest liability came at the free-throw line, where New Mexico hit just nine of 17 charities for 53 percent.
“It’s hard to imagine, because in practice every guy shoots above 75 percent,” said Alford, whose squad entered league play with the worst free-throw percentage of any team in the conference — converting at a 65.6 clip.
“We’ve had some games this year where the foul line has killed us. That was the difference in this game.
“They weren’t brilliant at the line, but they were better than we were,” Alford said of UNLV, which hit just 16 of 26 free throws.
New Mexico big man Daniel Faris, who led all scorers with 19 points, said there’s no excuse for such inconsistency in an uncontested shot.
“Concentration. That’s on us. Coach can’t do anything like draw up plays,” Faris said. “That’s on the players taking personal responsibility.”
Early on the Lobos were dialed in as New Mexico jumped out to a 5-0 lead.
Faris and Tony Danridge dominated down low, helping New Mexico outscore the Rebels in the paint, 38-18, while claiming a 41-38 advantage on the boards.
Faris’ dunk in the final minute of the first half gave New Mexico a 32-30 lead at the break.
The Lobos again came out of the gates strong to open the second half, matching their largest lead of five on a 3-pointer by Nate Garth with a little less than 13 minutes to go.
New Mexico answered when UNLV took a small advantage, one of the 11 lead changes that came in a contest that also featured 11 ties, with a lay-up by Danridge to knot things at 50-all with 6:32 to play.
The Rebels again forged ahead, 58-53, with a minute left, but the Lobos weren’t done.
Jonathan Wills fired in a 3-pointer with 16 seconds to go to set up Toppert’s last-second dramatics.
Even though the Albuquerque, N.M., native’s shot didn’t fall, he said the Lobos gained a valuable lesson in their conference opener.
“If they’re the best and we can keep up with them, that just gives us a lot of confidence continuing through the rest of the conference season,” said Toppert, whose New Mexico squad has to turn around and take on University of Texas-El Paso on Tuesday.
Andy Samuelson is a sports writer/editor for the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at [email protected] or 702-948-7837.