With the prospect of falling out of the national rankings when the votes are next tallied, the 24th-ranked UNLV Runnin' Rebels try to put their best foot forward on Saturday night as they entertain the Air Force Falcons in Mountain West Conference action at the Thomas & Mack Center.
On Wednesday night, the Rebels were matched up against 25th-ranked New Mexico in the conference opener at The Pit, a meeting which saw the visitors score a season-low in points as they bowed in a 65-60 final. The defeat was the second in the last four outings for a program that lost only once in the first 12 games of this season.
While the Runnin' Rebels are scrambling to regroup after the road loss earlier in the week, the Falcons have reason to celebrate as they began the conference slate with a 78-65 victory over the Nevada Wolf Pack on Wednesday night. The win snapped a two-game slide by the Academy, which opened the campaign with a five-game win streak.
As far as the all-time series is concerned, the Runnin' Rebels have taken 28 of the 36 meetings between the two programs over the years. The most recent battle took place in Sin City last February as the hosts claimed a 68-58 victory.
Mike Fitzgerald began the MWC schedule in a big way earlier this week as he became just the seventh player in Air Force history to score at least 30 points in a conference game as he guided the Falcons to the 13-point win over Nevada. Fitzgerald nailed four of the team's 10 3-point baskets in the meeting, was 9-of-10 from the floor overall and a perfect 8-of-8 at the free- throw line as he picked up the slack left by Michael Lyons, the second-leading scorer in the conference heading into the meeting, as he tallied just three points on 1-of-8 from the floor. Todd Fletcher and Taylor Broekhuis responded with 18 and 10 points, respectively. Even though he wasn't much of a factor against Nevada, Lyons is still the top scoring threat by far for the Falcons with his 18.3 ppg, while Broekhuis checks in with another 10.5 ppg. Even though the program doesn't have a single player pulling down even 5.0 rpg, the notoriously undersized group is trailing opponents by just 0.3 rpg at the moment.
UNLV led by seven points early in the second half versus the Lobos on Wednesday, but a 9-0 run put the hosts back in the mix and then it was UNM that survived the see-saw battle down the stretch. Now recognized as one of the top young players in the nation, Anthony Bennett was held to just 12 points and six rebounds as he dealt with foul trouble. Khem Birch matched Bennett for the scoring lead before he fouled out. In addition to turning the ball over 17 times, the Runnin' Rebels were also at a disadvantage at the free-throw line where they were outscored by a 15-4 margin. Bennett, who has the potential to put up a double-double every time he takes the floor, averaging 19.4 ppg and 8.9 rpg, has been given room to roam in the absence of the injured Mike Moser. However, the only other double-digit scorer for the team at the moment is Katin Reinhardt with 10.0 ppg, which means most of the pressure weighs on Bennett.