Playing in front of a friendly crowd at the Thomas and Mack Center after a pair of bad road losses, UNLV may have turned around its season by knocking off the Lobos 64-55.
Rice admitted he felt like the team’s collective back was against the wall, and he had to love the way his guys responded. The Rebels came out with high energy and quickly built a 24-10 lead, and New Mexico never got closer than eight points the rest of the night.
The most noticeable difference between the first New Mexico game (a 65-60 loss in Albuquerque) was the dominant play of Anthony Bennett. The freshman was somewhat stifled in the first meeting, which also doubled as his first taste of Mountain West basketball. However, he was the best player on the floor Saturday, posting 17 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
Whereas Bennett was pushed around in the first meeting, it was UNLV’s defense playing the role of bully this time around. New Mexico had trouble finding open looks all night, with Anthony Marshall and Bryce Dejean-Jones setting a physical tone with their perimeter defense.
It all added up to a huge, potentially season-changing win. After losses at Boise State and Fresno State had everyone questioning the Rebels’ resolve, this was a game they needed.
“We just got tired of losing,” Bennett said.
After a couple lethargic performances, Bennett once again looked like the guy who took the country by storm during non-conference play. He was running the floor again, getting good elevation on rebounds, challenging shots and generally terrorizing New Mexico on both ends. He finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, but the numbers only tell part of the story. He just looked different. “Last game, it was just more physical,” Bennett said. “I just didn’t want that to happen to me again.” The question now is, was he energized by the perfect storm of a big-game/hot-crowd situation, or is he getting his second wind? Because if Bennett plays like this consistently through the end of the season, a lot of the Rebels’ problems will disappear.
Defense turns up the heat
The Rebels continue to hang their hat on their defense, with this win being yet another example. They held New Mexico to 33.9-percent shooting, forced the Lobos to jack way too many outside shots (3-of-19 on 3-pointers) and forced 13 turnovers. Leading scorers Kendall Williams (13.6 ppg) and Tony Snell (11.9) were held to just two and six points, respectively. And when UNLV went scoreless for more than five minutes late in game, their 14-point lead only shrunk to 10 because New Mexico couldn’t solve the Rebels’ D. Rice said the key to defending the Lobos was slowing down Williams and Snell, and credited Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt for their work in checking the Lobos’ duo.
Not only did Dejean-Jones and Reinhardt play strong defense, they also gave the Rebels some much-needed offense from the wing positions. Each finished with 16 points, and though the rest of the Rebels hit just 2-of-9 from long distance, the duo of Dejean-Jones and Reinhardt combined to hit 7-of-13 3-pointers. “It makes an amazing difference for our team when our wings make shots,” Rice said. “Both Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt were recruited as scorers, as shooters, and tonight they were terrific.”
The Rebels haven’t been getting much offensive production from their bench lately, and Rice figured out a temporary solution against New Mexico: He didn’t use the bench. Justin Hawkins and Mike Moser, the primary reserves, played just six and two minutes, respectively, and neither scored. Instead, Rice rode his starters hard, with the quintet of Khem Birch (29 minutes), Anthony Bennett (31), Anthony Marshall (35), Katin Reinhardt (34) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (37) averaging 33.2 minutes. Rice said that strategy was “situational,” so expect Hawkins and Moser to begin seeing more playing time once they start hitting shots again.
Lopez-Sosa provides lift
The bench may not have provided much offensive support, but center Carlos Lopez-Sosa gave the team 15 valuable minutes. Though he scored just two points (the team’s only bench points), Lopez-Sosa grabbed five rebounds, made two steals and picked up two assists. He played 10 minutes in the second half as part of a three-man front court rotation with Birch and Bennett, and he finished with a plus-minus rating of plus-4. “Carlos was fantastic tonight,” said Rice, “and we don’t win that game without his 15 minutes and five rebounds.”
Follow Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) on Twitter for 24/7 Rebels updates.