Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012 | 2:20 p.m.
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ALBUQUERQUE — Dave Rice doesn’t credit this to luck.
Saturday morning at 10 o'clock, No. 11 UNLV will play at New Mexico on CBS with first place on the line. If the Lobos (21-4, 7-2) win, they could run away with the league title. If the Rebels (22-5, 6-3) win, they would regain the Mountain West driver’s seat just days after suffering a bad loss at TCU.
Others may say UNLV is lucky to be in this position again, but UNLV's coach said the Rebels have earned the right to play in this game. Either way, the Rebels know that if they don’t capitalize on this chance, they may not get another one.
“Opportunity is coming knocking a third time, and it normally knocks once,” junior forward Quintrell Thomas said. “We need to take advantage and not let it slip through our fingers again.”
In a highly anticipated game at the Thomas & Mack Center earlier this year, UNLV sprinted out and crushed New Mexico 80-63. The Lobos haven’t forgotten.
“These guys, not too long ago, really beat us up at their place,” Lobos sophomore guard Kendall Williams said after Wednesday’s 77-67 victory at No. 13 San Diego State. "We’re a hot team right now and they’re obviously off a letdown loss.”
Added junior guard Jamal Fenton, “We owe payback to UNLV.”
That statement could apply to the Rebels’ two-game winning streak at The Pit, too. Last year, Thomas had 19 points and 14 rebounds in a 77-74 overtime victory, and two years ago, UNLV’s Kendall Wallace came off the bench and drilled seven 3-pointers in a 74-62 victory.
New Mexico has transformed itself since that 17-point loss on Jan. 21, going on a six-game winning streak capped by that huge victory against the Aztecs.
During the streak, New Mexico’s defense has allowed 50.3 points per game on 34.6 percent shooting from the field and just 25.2 percent behind the 3-point line. The Lobos are also shooting more than 5 percent better from the floor (47.9 to 42.4) than they had in their first three conference games.
Another key has been the return of point guard Hugh Greenwood. He missed a couple of games, including the conference opener against Wyoming, because of an ankle sprain and he wasn’t the same in losses to San Diego State and UNLV, scoring no points in either game. Since then, he’s averaging 6.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and two assists per game.
His return, combined with the increasingly stellar play of sophomore guard Kendall Williams and freshman guard Tony Snell, has solidified the backcourt.
“They’re far enough along now that they truly have learned to play without Dairese Gary,” Rice said of the player who led New Mexico in scoring last year and assists three of the past four seasons. “Any time you lose a four-year starting point guard, it takes a period of time. He was so important to what they did, and without question early in the year they were still learning how to play without him.”
The Lobos’ frontcourt is as good as ever, with senior forwards Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman creating matchup problems that will challenge UNLV’s trio of post players as well as sophomore forward Mike Moser, who played with Gordon at UCLA before both players transferred.
“It’s going to be another test on the road to stay together and see what we’re really made of,” Moser said.
New Mexico answered those questions in full Wednesday night. The Lobos controlled the Aztecs for most of the game, and played great in transition at both ends of the floor, which was a big problem in their loss at the Mack.
“To go in there and win, and to do it convincingly, is a credit to what they do,” Rice said. "It’s not just their defensive effort, but they’re clicking on all cylinders on the offensive end as well.”
So in order for UNLV to regain first place, it has to go into one of the most hostile environments in the country and beat a team that’s playing better than any team in the conference and maybe even the nation. Yeah, that doesn’t sound too lucky. But that’s a chance the Rebels will gladly take.
“Everything’s in line for us,” Moser said.
This is probably the last time the Rebels will be able to say that. Now they must capitalize on it.