The UNLV Runnin Rebels began their Mountain West Conference opener tonight with a full house in attendance at the Thomas and Mack Center. What the fans saw was a very impressive performance from the visiting New Mexico Lobos who came extremely close to pulling off a tremendous upset. However in crunch time, despite countless sloppy trips down the floor and some very poor foul shooting, the Rebels hung on for a 60-58 victory.
Right from the opening tap the Rebels came out sluggish. Lon Kruger had already expressed concern that the Rebels may come out flat after their thrilling road victory New Years Eve against 18th ranked Louisville. Flat they were. Not until Tre'Von Willis hit a free throw at the 18:05 mark in the first half that the Rebels registered it's first points. The Lobos were led by Daniel Faris who was coming off his first career double double against in state rival New Mexico State.
Faris had 10 first half points and scored easily inside the paint as the Rebels had problems guarding the ball inside all night. The Lobos also were dominant on both the offensive and defensive boards especially in the second half where they had two and three chances for put back buckets on a number of occasions.
The Rebels stayed in the first half by making key 3 pointers everytime the Lobos began to pull away. Oscar Bellfield, Joe Darger, Kendall Wallace and Rutledge all hit important 3's to keep it a 2 point Lobo lead at the half.
The second half started out again just like the start of the game. The Lobos with Faris and Tony Dandridge leading the way opened a 5 point lead. Then at the 12 minute mark the Rebels led by their heart and soul, Rene Rougeau, went on a 10-1 run beginning with a beautiful under the basket left handed scoop that resulted in a 3 point play.
Wink Adams who was not in the starting lineup came into the game at times during both the first and second half and was clearly not himself. Obviously still in a great deal of pain, Wink went 0-6 from the floor committing a couple of turnovers and not taking open shots. He needs to get this healed before we will be able to see the old Wink.
With the lead changing 5 times down the stretch, The Rebels finally put together a number of key stops but still couldn't put the game away because of poor foul shooting. The Lobo's had a shot to win it missing a 3 in the last seconds of the game.
Three things were apparently clear to me watching tonight's game. First, the Rebels were very lucky to escape with a win. Second, this team definitely needs Wink Adams to be 100% to give this team the dominant player who can carry them on his back when necessary and third, do not for one minute underestimate the New Mexico Lobos.
This team is definitely going to be a factor in the Mountain West Conference this year. I think it is very fair to say if this game were to be played here in late February instead of tonight, I could easily envision the Lobos leaving here with a road win. We know they will be very tough at home in "The Pit" but I also see this team very capable of winning on the road at BYU and Utah. Look for them to be at least 11-5 in the conference going into the tournament.
Again, the Rebels win their first conference game tonight but it was most assuredly an "UGLY" win which still counts in the won and lost records. Let's hope this doesn't become a habit.