UNLV walk-on Nick Blair had a career-high 26 points in the Rebels’ 74-58 win against the Lobos on Jan. 22. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
The New Mexico men’s basketball team showed more energy and desire, played tighter defense and hit the glass tougher than in most of its games this season — especially from its loss to UNLV two weeks ago.
It even went old school, wearing turquoise uniforms.
Overall, however, the Lobos couldn’t change the ultimate outcome against UNLV, losing 74-58 on Tuesday night in Las Vegas.
The Rebels (11-7, 5-1 MWC) beat the Lobos 80-69 two weeks ago in the Pit, pulling away late in the second half.
This time, it was never a game in the second half.
On Tuesday, the Lobos (9-10, 3-4) got off to another nice start against the Rebels, grabbing a 9-3 lead. They led 14-8 when senior Anthony Mathis hit a 3-pointer with 11 minutes left in the first half.
But the Lobos had more of the same problems fans have gotten used to seeing: too many missed layups and too many turnovers (10 of their 14 in the first half), and the Rebels got hot.
UNLV hit eight 3-pointers in a nine-minute span and led by as many as 15 points before taking a 37-27 advantage at the half.
The Lobos got within 46-38 in the opening minutes of the second half but never made a run.
UNLV led by double-digits nearly the entire half and was up 68-50 with less than four minutes remaining.
Again, the Lobos looked to lack fundamentals and basic basketball instinct.
Some Tick Takes:
BLAIR WITCH: UNLV walk-on Nick Blair didn’t score against the Lobos two weeks ago. Heck, he only had 18 points all season coming into Tuesday night.
On Tuesday, however, the 6-foot-5 junior came off the bench to hit 9 of 14 shots, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range, and had a game-high 26 points.
NOT FREE THIS TIME: Probably the most eye-popping stat from the teams’ game two weeks ago was the way they shot free throws. UNLV was 18-of-21 (83.3 percent) and the Lobos were 19-of-22 ( 86.4 percent).
Such wasn’t the case on Tuesday. UNLV was 10-of-23 (43.5 percent); UNM was 8-of-15 (53.3).
HALL HURT: Longtime MWC official David Hall took an accidental kick to his left hand as he was making a call midway through the first half and went to his knee writhing in pain. The replay showed at least one of his fingers looking pretty mangled.
Hall was escorted off the court to get medical assistance and didn’t return, leaving it as a two-man officiating crew the rest of the game.
Mathis is one of the deadliest 3-point shooters in the country — when he can get a shot off. The Rebels blanked Mathis much of the night, holding the Lobos’ leading scorer to 3-of-6 shooting for eight points. He was 2-of-5 from behind the arc.
It’s not new, but UNM has to find ways to get Mathis open. The longer the season goes on, the more opposing coaches are finding ways to keep Mathis away from the ball.
UNM’s 6-foot-10 junior Carlton Bragg had one of his most powerful games this season. Bragg had a trio of impressive slam dunks in the second half and finished with 12 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
But while Bragg was strong going to the boards, the Lobos still aren’t getting him the ball enough inside — or deep enough.
… New Mexico’s offense looks better when sophomore Keith McGee comes off the bench to play point guard. But while McGee had 12 points on Tuesday, he didn’t have an assist. Still, McGee and Vance Jackson (16 points, eight boards) are the only two Lobos who can consistently create their own shots.
The Lobos do look to be improving, but not as quickly as other teams in the league. It’s a weak league with a lot of possible wins on the schedule, but New Mexico has a long way to go.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for four decades and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in the state’s history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.