Could these Rebels be for real?
Less than two weeks after losing to Bucknell in humiliating fashion to fall to 6-6 on the season, UNLV has now ripped off three straight wins to open Mountain West play, including Tuesday’s gritty, 80-69 statement victory at New Mexico.
Unlike the team that showed up for the Diamond Head Classic, the squad that took the court at The Pit looked like a legitimate Mountain West contender, as the Rebels out-executed New Mexico on both ends of the floor to secure the comeback win at one of the MWC’s most difficult road venues.
After trailing by as many as nine points early in the second half, a Kris Clyburn 3-pointer gave UNLV a 60-59 lead with 11 minutes to play. The two teams went back and forth for the next 10 minutes before Clyburn slammed the door with a corner 3 to make it 74-67 with 56 seconds remaining.
With the win, UNLV is now 3-0 in conference play for the first time since the inception of the Mountain West. The last time the Rebels won their first three league games was the start of the 1998-99 season, when they were a member of the WAC.
Clyburn finished with a game-high 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
“It was a great win,” Clyburn said. “This win means a lot. For us to start off 3-0, I don’t think we’ve ever done it before, but it’s a big stepping stone for preparing for the future.”
Clyburn played close to a flawless game, making 8-of-13 from the field, 2-of-2 from 3-point range and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line while adding nine rebounds. But the list of UNLV heroes starts with senior Noah Robotham, who authored his best game of the season.
On offense, Robotham scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting and broke New Mexico’s full-court press with ease, carving up the middle of the defense to the tune of eight assists (including his dish to Clyburn for the dagger 3). On defense, Robotham dominated New Mexico’s Anthony Mathis, holding the Lobos’ leading scorer to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting while harassing him into five turnovers.
Spearheaded by Robotham’s efforts, the Rebels’ took over the game on the defensive end over the final 20 minutes. After New Mexico shot 56.7 percent in the first half, UNLV held the Lobos’ to 6-of-25 from the field in the second period.
UNLV coach Marvin Menzies credited Robotham for rising to the occasion.
“That was [his] best game of the year, I thought by far,” Menzies said. “It was the most complete game of the year. He had a big shot at BYU, but I’ll take winning at The Pit over that one, and we don’t win without him tonight.”
The ever-cerebral Robotham said he watched Lobos games last year because his former Akron teammate Antino Jackson had transferred to New Mexico. Between that and his video study of Mathis leading up to the game, Robotham believed he had a head start on his defensive assignment.
“I watched a lot of film on him and I watched a lot of his games last year,” Robotham said. “My teammate Antino went to New Mexico last year, so I got to watch a lot of games and I kind of picked up on some of [Mathis’] tendencies. He’s a great player, he makes big shots, but I just wanted to make it as tough as possible.”
While the senior backcourt of Robotham and Clyburn combined to score 39 points on 20 shots, the Rebels also received a huge boost from some less-experienced players. Walk-on freshman guard Marvin Coleman played seven minutes as an additional ball-handler to help break the New Mexico press, and junior walk-on forward Nick Blair played nine critical minutes down the stretch after Mbacke Diong left the game with an ankle injury and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua fouled out.
Though neither Coleman nor Blair scored — or even attempted a shot — Menzies trusted them to execute under pressure and they delivered.
“Nick hasn’t played at all,” Menzies said. “I think he may have got one or two minutes earlier in the year, but he competes every day in practice. He’s one of our toughest guys. And I knew this environment wouldn’t bother him.”
UNLV will have a full week off to prepare for its next game, Jan. 16 at Air Force. The Rebels will then return home to host San Jose State on Jan. 19. If the Rebels win those games — they should be heavily favored in both — UNLV will be looking at a 5-0 record in the Mountain West.