The first team in the Mountain West Conference to reach the 20-win plateau this season, 15th-ranked New Mexico now goes after the UNLV Runnin' Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday.
The Lobos closed out a brief two-game homestand on Wednesday night with an 81-58 victory over visiting Air Force in a game that featured some tense moments amongst players and coaches alike. The win was the third in a row and the seventh in the last eight contests for a program that has now won at least 20 games in six straight seasons under the direction of head coach Steve Alford.
As for the Runnin' Rebels, a squad that began the 2012-13 campaign with 11 wins through the first 12 games, they've hit a bit of a rough patch recently. The team was in action three nights ago against Fresno State at the Save Mart Center and somehow was upset by the Bulldogs, a program that had won just one of seven league bouts heading in, by a score of 64-55.
The loss was the second in a row and the third in five tries for a team that appeared to have more talent than they knew what to do with this season. Nevertheless, the Rebels are now just 4-4 in conference play and that has them sitting in fifth place in the standings.
The Lobos won the first meeting of the season against UNLV by a 65-60 score last month in The Pit, as Alex Kirk posted 23 points and pulled down nine rebounds. The hosts survived despite turning the ball over 12 times and shooting just 38.6 percent from the floor and 15-of-29 at the free-throw line.
Despite that earlier setback, the Runnin' Rebels maintain a 28-18 advantage in the all-time series.
Ahead by double figures at the break on Wednesday night, the Lobos saw their advantage shrink in the second half before putting together a late run to regain control and cruise to the 23-point win. All five starters scored in double figures for the Lobos as Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Tony Snell all tallied 14 points, followed by High Greenwood with 13 points and Kendall Williams with 11, to go along with seven assists, six rebounds and four steals. Netting 68.0 ppg on the season, New Mexico doesn't have a single player who stands out as a tremendous scoring threat, rather the team has several performers who can come to the rescue when called upon. Williams (13.6 ppg) leads the group at the moment, but he is so much more than that with his team-best 102 assists and nearly four rebounds per contest. Snell (11.9 ppg) and Kirk (11.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg) are always near the top of the scoring column as well.
For the first time this season, UNLV was held below 60 points, going up against a defensive-minded Fresno State program on Wednesday night that hasn't been all that successful. Shooting just 31.0 percent from the floor in the first half, the Runnin' Rebels were lucky to be tied with FSU at the break, but then the visitors fell apart in the second half as they converted a mere 2-of-13 beyond the arc and were outscored at the free-throw line, 18-5. Anthony Marshall accounted for 19 points and six rebounds for the visitors, followed by Anthony Bennett with 15 points and nine boards, although the latter shot just 5-of-16 from the field. Mike Moser, who was tossed in the previous outing, again came off the bench and this time was held scoreless over 20 minutes. The return of Moser to the lineup after injury has been disappointing to say the least since the UCLA transfer was named an Honorable Mention All-American by the AP last season. Bennett has taken away some of his action for sure, the freshman currently leading the team with 18.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest.