Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, March 16, 2013 | 5:25 p.m.
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- BOX SCORE: UNLV75, Colorado State 65
- BLOG: UNLV beats Colorado State, 75-65, in advancing to Mountain West Conference finals
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The first instinct is to assign blame.
If they didn’t make just 33 percent of their shots, or if a few of the 22 3-pointers they missed would have fallen, then the UNLV basketball team might not have lost 63-56 to New Mexico on Saturday in the Mountain West tournament championship game.
But instead of rushing to find faults with the Rebels, let’s first give credit where credit is due. New Mexico is good — maybe the best all-around team since the Mountain West’s inception in 1999.
The Lobos are relentless and can beat opponents in several ways, showing their No. 15 national ranking and 29-win season is no fluke by humbling a UNLV team that, despite what its skeptics say, is talented and still equipped to make noise in next week’s NCAA Tournament. Seriously, Rebel fans, they are.
UNLV did a good job of containing Kendall Williams, the league Player of the Year, who made just 1 of 6 shots in the first half and was limited to 12 points. Also, big man Alex Kirk was bothered most of the game on the inside, scoring only five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
But New Mexico showed it is more than a one-trick pony.
Tony Snell drained 3-pointers on consecutive possessions in the second half to give New Mexico the lead for good, Hugh Greenwood was perfect on a trio of 3-point attempts in the first half and finished with seven rebounds and five assists, and New Mexico committed just seven turnovers.
It's tough to beat a team with that much balance – even when you play your best game, which UNLV didn’t.
But UNLV wasn’t out-hustled, and the outcome had nothing to do with desire. In fact, the Rebels put up a great fight and were the first team in three tournament games to have a lead against New Mexico. UNLV trailed by nine points with less than three minutes remaining, then cut its deficit to three points on a pair of Bryce Dejean-Jones 3-pointers. Then, New Mexico flexed its muscles in again showing the rest of the league who the best team is.
Here is the simple truth: New Mexico was the better than UNLV in the preseason, during the season and in the league tournament.
However, UNLV isn’t that far behind. Sure, second place is the first loser, and the Rebels are playing for championship rings and not participation medals.
But the Rebels learned something about themselves Saturday, and in its other two tournament games, that will make them better next week in the most important tournament.
The Rebels are playing with a chip on their shoulder. They are tough, aggressive and challenge most shots at the rim. They don’t back down — which wasn’t the case earlier in the season. No matter what the score, they kept fighting until the final seconds.
Since their season is already classified by most as a disappointment, the Rebels can play next week with nothing to lose. If they are knocked out of the NCAAs in their first game for the fourth straight season, so what? That, unfortunately, is where the season that started with predictions of a Sweet 16 run has taken us.
It surely wasn’t fun watching the annoying New Mexico fans — everyone is a Lobo, right? — storm the Rebels’ home court in celebration. But they earned it.
Moving forward, UNLV can’t fall into the trap of heaving from the outside; it has to continue setting the tone with its physical style of play, and it has to get lucky. I’ve written this several times before — navigating through the NCAA Tournament is as much matchups and luck as it is the best team winning.
Fortunately, UNLV won’t have to play New Mexico next week.