For one reason or another the New Mexico men’s basketball team seem to have lost a competitive edge, coach Craig Neal said after his team dropped its first game in Mountain West play.
The Lobos, hosting a UNLV team looking to avoid a third straight conference loss, battled back from an early 16-point deficit but could not take the lead in a 76-73 loss to the Runnin’ Rebels.
UNM (12-4, 3-1 MW) cut the game to a single possession four times in the second half and trailed by two in the final 26 seconds. Each time, UNLV (11-6, 2-2 MW) responded with a basket or UNM failed to convert on its opportunities. UNM trailed three points or less from the 2:22 mark to the end of the game.
UNLV’s widest lead through the latter 20 minutes: seven points.
“I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but I think they’ve lost an edge, an edge they’ve always had,” Neal said. “That competitive edge where they think they’re good enough to where they can just turn the switch on and turn the switch off. And they’re not good enough to do that. The team’s not good enough to do that. We’ve never been good enough to do that.”
Forward Cameron Bairstow had a chance to give UNM the lead in the final moments. Down 74-73, center Alex Kirk pulled down a crucial rebound off a Bryce Dejean-Jones miss, forcing a UNLV timeout. On the Lobos’ ensuing possession, Bairstow missed a 16-foot jump shot.
Bairstow, who scored a game-high 27 points, admitted he made a mistake taking the jumper rather than working the ball toward the net and taking a closer shot.
“My original thought was to go for two-for-one, but that wasn’t the right move,” said Bairstow, recording his 10th 20-plus performance of the season. “In-bounding the ball we had 45 seconds. By the time it got to me, there just wasn’t enough time to go for two-for-one. I definitely made a mistake on a crucial part of the game.”
After the UNLV guard Dejean-Jones drained two free throws, Lobos guards Hugh Greenwood, Deshawn Delaney and Cullen Neal all missed game-tying 3-pointers attempted in the final eight seconds.
For UNLV, the game was as close to a must-win situation as one could have in this early stage of the conference season. The Runnin’ Rebels, who previously lost at home to Air Force and Nevada, travel to No. 10 San Diego State this weekend.
Dejean-Jones led UNLV’s offense with 23 points. Four of five Runnin’ Rebel starters reached double-figures with guard Deville Smith scoring 17, guard Kevin Olekaibe netting 14 and forward Khem Birch adding 11.
Three other UNM starters joined Bairstow in double figures as well. Guard Kendall Williams had 15, center Alex Kirk had 12 points and 11 rebounds (his 20th career double-double), and guard Deshawn Delaney had 10.
Bairstow and Kirk accounted for the first nine points, taking all seven field goals in the first five minutes. After leading 9-8, UNLV used a 20-3 run to build a 28-12 lead. UNM trimmed that margin to 46-42 by halftime.
“One of the big things for us, playing at altitude, was trying to drive the ball to get fouls on them and try to get free throws, so we may be able to get a little rest and stop the momentum to get to the free throw line,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.