New Mexico hassled Kelli Thompson so relentlessly, she came to believe if she bent over to tie her shoes, a Lobo would be in her face.
The Lobos decided if they were to lose, it wouldn’t be because of UNLV’s best basketball player.
“I didn’t have a clean anything,” Thompson said Thursday after another disappointing Mountain West tournament loss by the Lady Rebels, this one a 72-59 quarterfinals defeat before a raucous pro-New Mexico crowd of 5,285 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Fourth-seeded UNLV (12-19) went one-and-done in the conference tournament for the fourth year in a row. Like last year, a lower-seeded New Mexico team — one UNLV swept in both regular seasons — ousted the Lady Rebels.
“I think we have a basketball team that they want it so bad,” UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said. “When you want it so bad, sometimes you try to do too much. That’s not what basketball is about. It’s a team game. So you’ve got to make sure that you trust each other, move the ball.”
Fifth-seeded New Mexico (17-13) next faces top-seeded San Diego State (25-5) at noon today in one semifinal. The Aztecs trounced ninth-seeded UNR, 67-39.
Second-seeded Fresno State (22-8) plays third-seeded Wyoming (24-6) at 2:30 p.m. in the other semifinal. Fresno State beat seventh-seeded Boise State 72-55 in one quarterfinal, and Wyoming edged sixth-seeded Colorado State, 60-58.
UNR finished 8-23, Boise State 11-19 and Colorado State 11-19.
Early on, UNLV appeared to be in good shape to advance, bolting to a 19-8 lead about nine minutes in. Conference freshman of the year Rejane Verin was nearly unstoppable, scoring 14 of those points.
New Mexico then effectively took Verin out of the game, and though she finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, she took only three shots after that start, including only one in the second half.
“It wasn’t frustrating, because if they are all on me, somebody is open,” Verin said.
Verin wasn’t the Lobos’ primary defensive target, though. They were more interested in shutting down Thompson, a first-team All-Mountain West selection, who entered the game leading the conference with 18.6 points per game.
Thompson hit 2 of 14 shots and scored seven points, the first time she was held below double figures since scoring eight on Jan. 20 against Colorado State and only the fourth time all season.
“We took the greater of two evils in Thompson,” New Mexico coach Yvonne Sanchez said. “She’s a heck of a player. I think she’ll be playing at the next level.”
New Mexico, by sending different players at Thompson, took UNLV out of sync. After building that early 11-point lead, the Lady Rebels went 10:03 without a basket.
“That’s when they pretty much took control of the game,” Olivier said.
UNLV still managed to be even at 24 after ending that drought. But that’s when New Mexico’s Caroline Durbin sent a message by making two 3-pointers in the final 34 seconds to give the Lobos a 30-24 halftime lead.
“It almost felt like the end of the game,” said Durbin, who scored 17 points. “It got us on a roll for the second half.”
The Lobos came out strong in the second half, and appeared they would cruise to victory by grabbing a 60-47 lead with 6:48 left. But UNLV reeled off a 10-point run capped by Rmanii Haynes’ 3-pointer with 1:45 remaining to climb back to within three points.
Durbin then answered with a 16-footer, and any doubts were soon erased, ending a trying time for a UNLV program with three players on the bench with injuries.
Sanchez took advantage of UNLV’s lack of depth by implementing a game plan that ran the Lady Rebels ragged.
“Our plan was to eventually wear them down,” Sanchez said.
Led by Antiesha Brown’s 21 points, four players scored in double figures for New Mexico.
Thompson carried the sting of last year’s tournament loss to the Lobos with her all season, and now the senior will have to absorb the pain of this defeat.
“I gave UNLV my everything,” she said. “I stayed loyal to my school.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.