Despite not being considered the home team, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels will still be the fan favorite when they take the floor at the Thomas & Mack Center for the Mountain West Conference title game against 15th-ranked New Mexico on Saturday.
A virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament as it stands now, the third-seeded Runnin' Rebels could only help their cause by giving top-seeded New Mexico a tough run today. A three-time champion in the event, the last crown coming in 2008, UNLV began this year's run by first crushing Air Force in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, 72-56, and then taking down Colorado State on Friday night, 75-65.
As for the Lobos, the defending tournament champs who defeated San Diego State last season by a score of 68-59, they've won both of their tourney games by double figures as well. First, UNM took out Wyoming in a 59-46 decision three nights ago, and then served up a 60-50 victory against San Diego State on Friday.
The two teams split a pair of meetings during the regular season, with the Lobos posting a 65-60 win in The Pit back in early January, while the Runnin' Rebels claimed a 64-55 triumph a month later right here in Sin City. As a result, the lead for UNLV in the all-time series stands at 30-19.
The Runnin' Rebels had trouble slowing down CSU's Colton Iverson (24 points, 16 rebounds) in the paint on Friday night, but still the locals were able to pull off the double-digit win with the help of Katin Reinhardt who converted 4-of-9 behind the 3-point line as he finished with 21 points. Anthony Bennett, who knocked down three 3-pointers in the first half but had to play cautiously due to early foul trouble, accounted for 19 points, while Anthony Marshall posted 12 points for the Rebels.
When let loose, Bennett (16.2 ppg) is one of the toughest players to defend in the MWC due to his ability to hit the glass (8.0 rpg) and hit perimeter shots (.398). Marshall (10.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg) has been the floor general for the Rebels, having handed out 191 assists and committing only 89 turnovers, while Reinhardt (10.1 ppg) has shown that he can be a sniper out on the perimeter when given some space. The wild card in all of this for UNLV might be Mike Moser (7.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg) who has been a disappointment this season after being so dominant a year ago, but that was also before suffering a serious elbow injury.
For New Mexico, the offensive attack came on two fronts versus San Diego State as Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk dominated in the paint with 16 and 15 points, respectively, the former also clearing 11 rebounds. On the outside the team was inspired by the play of Tony Snell who converted 5-of-8 shots beyond the arc and finished with a team-best 17 points, to go along with five rebounds and four assists. UNM didn't have the best shooting night, hitting only 34.6 percent from the floor in the first half and 41.2 percent overall, but the Lobos still made it work.
In addition to the big men working so well in the paint, perhaps the other notable aspect of the two tournament wins for the Lobos is that they've gotten it done while Kendall Williams, the MWC Player of the Year, has recorded a combined 13 points. Williams still leads the team in scoring after 33 games with his 13.5 ppg and has been the steady hand in the passing department with 159 assists, many of those going to Snell (12.4 ppg) and Kirk (12.1 ppg).