Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011 | 3:10 p.m.
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer discuss the UNLV's last-second victory against New Mexico. It was a thrilling 63-62 win that gives the Rebels much needed momentum moving forward, though they're far from out of the woods in an effort to land a fourth NCAA tournament bid in five years.
Maybe this is the play that helps turn around the fortunes for the UNLV basketball team. It definitely feels like the game that could potentially do so.
In the first half of the Rebels' 63-62 victory Saturday against visiting New Mexico, red-shirt freshman Carlos Lopez flexed his muscles on the inside in ripping the ball away from the Lobos’ Drew Gordon to start a fast break.
The Rebels raced up the court in transition, working the ball around to wide-open Chase Stanback behind the 3-point line. Cue the fight song.
Stanback, who was lights-out in the first half in scoring 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, buried the long-range shot to force New Mexico to call a timeout. For a UNLV team desperate for confidence, the aggressive sequence from an unlikely source can’t be under-appreciated.
The reserve Lopez had three steals and a block in six minutes during the first half, coming up with a steal on the next possession after his rip-away from Gordon that led to an easy layup for teammate Tre’Von Willis.
UNLV, which was booed off its home court Wednesday in an upset loss to Colorado State, needed the win to essentially salvage its season. The loss to Colorado State was a humiliating setback by double-digits in which the Rebels’ flaws were again exposed.
There is no questioning the Rebels’ talent — it exists. But against Colorado State, and for part of the New Mexico game, the Rebels appeared to be going through the motions.
Despite playing at home, where promotions during timeouts virtually beg fans to help provide the team with a boost of energy, the Rebels are oftentimes flat during crucial parts of the game.
Then Lopez came to the rescue. His intensity and aggression could not have come at a better time.
It was only one sequence of plays, and the Rebels have to be commended for staying tough to win the back and forth game in the final seconds. But if it weren’t for Lopez providing that early spark, who knows if the Rebels would have been in position to win.
Here are some other observations from Saturday’s game.
1) Momentum-building win: For a team desperately seeking a marquee victory, the Rebels’ gutsy one-point triumph couldn’t have come at a better time. What loss to Colorado State? What NIT berth? I’m a firm believer of not getting too low or too high after a game, but hanging on to beat New Mexico is definitely what the doctor ordered for UNLV. Now, they have to take the momentum gained and continue playing inspired basketball. They need to duplicate the energy from the final three minutes to the rest of the season.
2) A rusty Tre’Von is better than no Tre’Von: Two steals in the final seconds. A pair of clutch free throws. Welcome back, Tre’Von Willis. After a season, and off-season, of conflict and injury, Willis is the Rebels’ savior — again. After missing the last two games with a knee injury, Willis was huge down the stretch in helping the Rebels to erase a late deficit. His steal and two free throws (after being intentionally fouled) with 30 seconds remaining showed how valuable the senior guard is. The pre-season first-team Mountain West Conference selection hasn’t had the role he envisioned this year, but after his heroics Saturday, he showed he’s still a much-needed part of the rotation. Willis was hobbled with the gimpy knee most of the game and needed a few trips up and down the court to shake off the rust. I’m guessing his knee feels a lot better.
3) A fast start is crucial: UNLV scored on its initial three possessions, with Stanback draining a 3-pointer from the corner on what appeared to be a set play to open the game for a 3-0 Rebels lead. On New Mexico’s first two possessions, the Lobos didn’t get a good look and were forced to try contested 3-pointers with less than five seconds on the shot clock. A great start, and ultimately, great win.
4) When Stanback plays well, so does UNLV: Stanback had eight points in the opening five minutes in providing that leadership the Rebels desperately need. In what was essentially a must-win, Stanback finally snapped what seemed to be a two-week personal drought. It’s a pretty basic formula — when Stanback is running well, so are the Rebels.
5) Not out of the woods yet: The win improved UNLV’s record to 15-5 overall and 3-3 in the Mountain West Conference, helping the Rebels stop the bleeding in what was arguably five weeks of rough performances. But, by no means, are they in the clear. They have six road games left and likely need a third place finish to enhance their NCAA Tournament chances. Bottom line, they are going to need to hold serve at home, and be as flawless as possible on the road. That includes returning the favor against Colorado State.
6) Steady Oscar : Oscar Bellfield scored seven straight points in the first half, including making a tough 3-pointer from the corner in front of New Mexico’s bench. He finished with 13 points and five assists in 32 minutes, and was the perfect running mate with Stanback early. Bellfield has consistently been one of the Rebels’ best players and a steady leader from the point guard spot. He’d be my pick to have the ball late in any game, even after only making 1 of 2 foul shots with a chance to ice the game.