ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In an unbridled show of emotion after a steal, dunk and foul, Bryce Dejean-Jones pumped his arms, shouted and chest bumped teammates. He had a point to prove, and a three-point play was only his opening statement.
“I was trying to fire up my team,” the junior guard said.
Dejean-Jones did that from start to finish, scoring 23 points and hitting two free throws with 27 seconds remaining to lift UNLV to a 76-73 upset of New Mexico on a wild Wednesday night at The Pit.
Deville Smith made numerous clutch shots while scoring 17 points, 10 in the second half. Kevin Olekaibe had 14 points and Khem Birch totaled 11 points and 11 rebounds as the Rebels (11-6, 2-2 Mountain West) stopped a two-game losing skid in the conference.
“With all of the stuff going on and people doubting us, we came out to show we are who we are. This is how we need to play,” said Dejean-Jones, who shot 6 of 12 from the field and made 11 of 13 free throws.
UNLV had all the motivation it needed after losing to UNR and Air Force in back-to-back home games. But Lobos center Alex Kirk added fuel to the fire by calling the Rebels “a hell of an AAU team” in comments to the Albuquerque Journal.
Kirk said UNLV had a “pretty scary” collection of talented players, and did not seem to mean it as a sign of disrespect, but Dejean-Jones and his teammates took it as an insult.
“Just hearing that from an opponent is never a good thing. There’s supposed to be mutual respect between the teams,” Dejean-Jones said. “A comment like that definitely doesn’t go well with me. We’re a college basketball team. You should never compare us to high school AAU players.”
Birch addressed the comment with Kirk before the opening tip.
“He’s a good guy. He said it was unintentional,” Birch said. “When a guy calls you an AAU team, you’ve got to come out strong, whether it’s intentional or not. It fired us up a lot. It was a big factor. Bryce took that comment to heart.”
Kirk and Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico’s bruising big men, did not back down. Bairstow pounded the paint for 27 points on 10-for-16 shooting, and Kirk finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
But the Rebels set the tone early, with Dejean-Jones driving hard to the rim and Olekaibe sinking three 3-pointers in the first 12 minutes. UNLV took the lead 4½ minutes into the game and never relinquished it while turning back one rally after another by the Lobos (12-4, 3-1).
A 20-3 run over a five-minute stretch was highlighted by Dejean-Jones’ dunk and three-point play, and Olekaibe’s second 3 with 10:14 to go put the Rebels, who made 10 of their first 14 shots, ahead 28-12.
New Mexico closed to within 46-42 at the half and missed several opportunities to tie or take the lead down the stretch. Bairstow made two free throws to cut the Lobos’ deficit to 74-73 with 1:24 remaining.
Dejean-Jones missed a 12-foot jumper in the lane, and Kirk rebounded for New Mexico, which used a timeout with 45 seconds left. Instead of using his power in the low post, Bairstow came up short on a baseline jumper, and the Lobos fouled Dejean-Jones, who made two free throws.
With eight-tenths of a second left, Cullen Neal got free for a potential tying 3-pointer from the corner, but the ball bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
“Our guys have taken a lot of shots and lot of criticism for how we’ve played at times, and a lot of that is warranted,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We answered every one of New Mexico’s runs. It was a huge win for our team.
“We were very disappointed about our performance at home. I told our guys, ‘The season starts tonight.’ We came in with great energy.”
The Rebels also executed their defensive game plan by only occasionally double-teaming Bairstow and Kirk in the post and sticking to the Lobos’ perimeter shooters. Kendall Williams scored 15 points but was not a major factor while shooting 3-for-8 for New Mexico, which went 6-for-22 from 3-point range.
Rice used senior forward Carlos Lopez-Sosa as a low-post defender down the stretch, and Lopez-Sosa held his ground while starter Roscoe Smith watched from the bench.
“There’s no way to stop Cam and Alex,” Rice said. “Bairstow had the ball for a lot of good shots, and he made a majority of them. He’s an NBA player. If we doubled down, they were going to make wide-open 3s. Pick your poison. We wanted to mix our defense a little bit and shrink the floor. We just didn’t want them to get going from 3.”
Rice called it a “great achievement” that UNLV shot 50 percent (24 of 48) from the field and 21 of 27 on free throws in a hostile environment in front of a crowd of 15,351.
“Our guys didn’t think we have an AAU program,” Rice said.
Dejean-Jones said the Rebels were “more intense” due to two recent losses, outside criticism and, of course, Kirk’s inflammatory quote.
“I tried to ask him about his comment but got nothing in return,” Dejean-Jones said. “We just came out to play instead of talk.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.