Playing New Mexico in Albuquerque is a tough task. You are reminded when you enter The Pit that you are 5,362 feet above sea level, which means there is slightly less oxygen than at normal sea level.
No matter how well or poorly the Lobos are, you have to play at a high level to win at The Pit. And for struggling UNLV, playing consistently at a high level has been tough.
The Rebels have lost five of its last six, and they needed a near buzzer-beater from Marvin Coleman to beat eighth-place Fresno State at home. Against the Bulldogs, UNLV got significant offensive production form its guards, like Bryce Hamilton and Amauri Hardy.
In a crucial game, the Rebels got double-figure points from four guards to lead them past the Lobos 78-73.
“We talked to our guys a lot about bouncing back and being together,” coach T.J. Otzelberger said after the win. “Really worked the last couple of days on confidence and shooting the ball. I thought both of those were ever-present today”
New Mexico tied the game at 66 with 6:03 left and UNLV called a timeout. Out of the timeout, Hardy knocked down a jumper and Elijah Mitrou-Long had a lay up to put the Rebels back up four.
The Rebels maintain the lead and answered back to the runs the Lobos made to hold on to the victory.
Mitrou-Long made a key defensive play when he stole the ball when the Rebels had a 74-73 lead. He made a swipe at the ball in the hands of Zane Martin and got the Rebels an extra possession with less than 20 seconds left.
“I knew he (Martin) was going to attack…I knew he was going to drive,” Mitrou-Long said, “I was either going to take a charge or try to steal it, because if he went downhill I was probably going to foul him. When I stepped one way, he crossed over and I was able to tap it without the ref calling a foul and I tapped it and fortunately got the ball.”
Hamilton and Mitrou-Long lead the Rebels with 17 points. Hamilton has been at his best in a Rebel uniform this conference season, he is averaging 21.4 points per game in conference. And there were questions if he could be an offensive contribution for this team after low numbers last year at Texas. It is fair to say that Mitrou-Long, who has been averaging over 11 points per game, has answered the call.
As a whole, UNLV had one of its best offensive games in a while. The Rebels shot 50 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three.
“We came out and knocked down some shots early. That really helped open and space the floor. I thought our guys did a great job in transition and then got just enough stops and were gutty at the right time to finish the game”
Contributing to that success was Hardy and Coleman, who both had 16 points. Coleman made all six of the shots he took, four of which where three-pointers.
This was the first game without Donnie Tillman, who will be out the rest of the season with a knee injury, as reported by Mark Anderson of the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Without the forward, the Rebels have relied on a smaller, four-guard lineup. The guards of Coleman, Hamilton, Hardy, and Mitrou-Long each played at least 32 minutes.
The small lineup helped give UNLV an advantage on offense. With multiple ball handlers on the court, the Rebels could push the ball up the court to get past the Lobo defense. When they got stops on defense, it benefited them getting in transition and pushing the pace.
Otzelberger said they will put whatever lineup they need to win. He said the play of the four guards, Coleman, Hamilton, Hardy, and Mitrou-Long, have all played well and warranted time on the court.
UNLV is only the second team to beat New Mexico in its building, the only other is undefeated, fourth-ranked San Diego State. This is only UNLV’s second road win of the season.
UNLV moves to 13-14 overall and 8-6 in conference. The Rebels return home on Tuesday night to Colorado State at 7:30 p.m.