In a game of runs, the Lobos managed the final decisive run, outscoring UNLV 9-2 over the final 2:26 of the game to hold off the Runnin' Rebels 65-60 in the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams in The Pit before a sell out 15,411 crowd Wednesday.
With seven NBA scouts in attendance to watch national Freshman of the Year candidate Anthony Bennett, Alex Kirk scored 16 of his game-high 23 points in the first half as New Mexico (14-2, 1-0) fought to a 34-30 halftime lead.
But it was Kendall Williams' nine second half points (the junior finished with 11 points) that were the difference late, especially a decisive three-pointer Williams hit with 2:15 left in the game to turn back a Rebel surge and give UNM the lead for good.
"We knew it would be a very hard-fought college basketball game and it was," said UNLV head coach Dave Rice. "It was a physical game and we didn't do a very good job of overcoming the foul trouble that we were in. There were some toughness plays that we needed to make down the stretch, and we just can't give up offensive rebounds like we did."
The Rebels' Bennett was hampered by foul trouble, scoring 12 points and pulling in six rebounds in 26 minutes of action. Bennett and point guard Anthony Marshall both fouled out. Marshall scored seven points and pulled in seven rebounds but committed five of the Rebels' 17 turnovers, which UNM converted to 21 points.
"Obviously this is a huge win for us," said UNM head coach Steve Alford. "The key was that they made runs when they got out in transition and when we got them into half court, that worked in our favor. I thought our guys battled."
The Lobos led 9-4 early before the Rebels managed an 8-0 run of their own to take a 17-11 lead with 10:19 on a three pointer by Justin Hawkins.
UNLV lead went up to seven at 19-12 before UNM surged back, eventually taking the lead back on a trey by Tony Snell with 5:54 left to give the Lobos a 24-22 lead.The Lobos and Rebels battled but UNM was able to surge ahead to take a 34-27 lead with 1:09 left on an Kirk jumper.
But UNLV scored the last three points of the half to cut the lead to 34-30 at the break.
After the break, UNM increased the lead to 37-30 on a trey by Snell right out of the gate, But the Rebels answered with a jumper by Bennett and a trey by Katin Reinhardt that keyed a 15-2 run by the Rebels to give them a 45-39 lead with 15:53 left in the game.
But UNM battled back, using a strict defensive effort to reverse the game, managing a 13-6 surge to retake the lead at 52-51 with 8:06 left in the game. UNLV would fight back and take its final lead on a Justin Hawkins three pointer to make it 58-56 with 3:24 left. But the Rebels turned the ball over three times over the final three minutes and would hit just one shot from the field the rest of the way.
After Williams' trey gave them the lead, UNM went 5 of 10 from the free throw line down the stretch to seal the win.
Pitt transfer Khem Birch scored 12 points and pulled in four rebounds for UNLV (13-3, 0-1), Bryce Dejean-Jones added nine points on 4 of 8 shooting and Justin Hawkins added eight points, hitting 2 of 3 three pointers. In his first game action since a loss at North Carolina in December, Mike Moser scored three points and pulled in two rebounds in 14 minutes of work.
Snell added 13 points for New Mexico while Adams scorer six points and pulled in a game-high ten rebounds despite wrenching his knee in the first half.