Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 | 11:55 p.m.
Kendall Williams surveyed the conquered arena and turned up his permanent smirk another level. The only Lobo to offer anything close to bulletin-board material heading into UNLV’s highly anticipated rematch with New Mexico backed it up and then some tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Near the end of his 29-point performance, Williams pointed out all the empty seats to his father sitting behind the New Mexico bench, then had some parting words for a few Rebels fans heading for the exits near the end of UNLV’s 68-56 loss.
“This is our (freaking) house,” Williams said. “It’s time for you to go home.”
There was nothing the Rebels (17-9, 8-5) or the fans could really say by the end. New Mexico (20-5, 11-2) came in and played like the better team, going wire to wire and leading by as much as 17 in the second half.
“We needed this game,” said junior Khem Birch. “We could be in the race but now I guess we’re out.”
New Mexico will move on to a huge home game Saturday against first-place San Diego State. It’s officially a two-team race as the Rebels tonight fell three full games behind the Lobos with five to play, starting Saturday at Boise State.
This was UNLV’s last chance to be a factor and to play for something more than seeding in the conference tournament. Instead they dropped the ball before the game even started, with starting point guard Deville Smith showing up late for shootaround.
Deville Smith was also late to the team bus on Saturday at Utah State; he came off the bench in both games. This is at least the seventh incident of showing up late to a team function by five players this season.
“I was disappointed,” said Birch, who was held out of the first official practice fore being late to a weight-lifting session. “Even though it’s February that’s a big issue.”
The Rebels were late getting out to Williams in the first minute and he started the game with a 3-pointer. UNLV coach Dave Rice said that strengthened the confidence he already had coming into the game, and Williams went on to score 17 in the first half.
“I think a big thing that got him going was that we beat him down in the Pit,” Rice said. “… When he’s going like that he’s difficult to stop.”
After Alex Kirk’s AAU comment dominated the postgame conversation last month following UNLV’s three-point win in Albuquerque, Williams said the Lobos would come in and return the favor by getting what they want on offense. That’s pretty much what happened with Williams and Cameron Bairstow killing the Rebels on pick and rolls.
For most of the game, UNLV’s bigs were staying with the guard far longer than a player normally would on a pick-and-roll. Rice said that was because UNLV’s guards didn’t do a good enough job and needed the help.
“Our guards weren’t physical enough getting over screens,” Rice said. “Because of that our big guys had to stay longer.”
That left Bairstow (18 points, six rebounds, five blocks) and Kirk (eight points, six rebounds) with a lot of space to make plays. Roscoe Smith said he felt the Rebels did OK in those situations but Birch offered a little more insight.
“You have to guard two people,” he said. “We have to help so much that they get wide open. I’m not blaming our guards though. Their bigs are so physical so it’s hard for our guards to get through it.”
Birch and Roscoe Smith combined to take five of UNLV’s first six shots and only converted one. That, and more importantly New Mexico’s switch to a zone defense, was the reason UNLV’s shot attempts moved farther outside the rest of the way. The Rebels shot 3-for-21 behind the three-point line and also couldn’t find a respite at the free-throw line, where they finished 15-of-26.
Birch is a 75.8 percent free-throw shooter this season but he missed seven attempts in the first half, and most of them weren’t even close. He took the blame for the first-half deficit but was upset at a stretch of four straight 3-point attempts, all misses, in the final seven minutes of a 10-point game.
It may not have mattered. Nor did the feeling from both sides that this was one of the worst officiated games in recent memory. Those were factors, but the bottom line was UNLV didn’t play well enough to deserve the win.
This was a big spot, the biggest one they’ll have until the conference tournament begins in this building in three weeks, and the Rebels came up empty. They allowed Williams to do exactly what he said he was going to do and get the last word in UNLV’s sixth home loss of the season.
“I’ve never had a losing season like this,” Birch said. “I always want to make the NCAA Tournament. I’m not saying we’re not but our chances are very slim right now.”