No fighting words, even if unintentional, were fired from the New Mexico side this time. And on the UNLV side, junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones made sure to say all the right things.
“Every game is a big game,” Dejean-Jones said. “It’s our next big game.”
That’s known as a cliche, not bulletin-board material. But the second round of this fight needs no contrived hype. What went down in the opening round will suffice.
With the Mountain West title far from decided, the third-place Rebels (17-8, 8-4) and second-place Lobos (19-5, 10-2) square off again at 8:05 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center, where Brent Musburger and Bob Knight will call the shots for an ESPN2 audience.
It’s the eighth meeting between the teams in the past three seasons, with New Mexico holding a 4-3 edge. UNLV was an 8½-point underdog when it won 76-73 on Jan. 15 in Albuquerque behind 23 points from Dejean-Jones.
He played with passion that night at The Pit, irritated by back-to-back losses to Air Force and UNR and inspired by words from an opponent.
Two days before the game, Lobos junior center Alex Kirk acknowledged the Rebels’ “raw talent” and said, “That’s a hell of an AAU team.”
Dejean-Jones did not perceive it as an innocent slight, firing back after the game by saying, “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. We just came out to play instead of talk.”
Kirk said he meant no ill will. Dejean-Jones addressed the issue again after Tuesday’s practice.
“They think we’re an AAU team, so it’s the second time to prove ourselves,” he said with a laugh. “We kind of took that personal. I took it as you don’t think we’re that good at all.”
UNLV, backed against the wall at the time, has won six of its past seven games.
“We had a lot to play for. We had a week off and we were sitting on two losses,” coach Dave Rice said. “I do think for a 40-minute game that was the best we have played all season. It was a very good road win for us.
“Our guys have great respect for New Mexico, and our guys know what’s at stake. I think they are a Top 25 team. I’ve always believed that there’s an inherent advantage for the team that lost the first game just because of the motivation.”
New Mexico, which took a 71-70 loss at Boise State last week, still has two games remaining against league-leading and sixth-ranked San Diego State. The Rebels host the Aztecs on March 5.
“I just know we’re third and we’re trying to get to first,” Dejean-Jones said. “We understand the significance of this game, talking about the NCAA Tournament and all that. I don’t know the RPI stuff, but I know about the next game coming up. They are a great team, and we’re going to be ready. You kind of take it as a rivalry.”
While the Rebels have shed their AAU label, the Lobos are led by an emerging NBA prospect in 6-foot-9-inch senior forward Cameron Bairstow, the top scorer in the Mountain West at 20.3 points per game.
Rice called it a “two-man race” for conference player of the year between Bairstow and San Diego State senior point guard Xavier Thames.
Bairstow worked the interior for 27 points and Kirk scored 12 against UNLV in January. New Mexico’s big men are harder to handle in a half-court game, but it’s a team that also can succeed at a fast pace because of skilled guards Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood.
The Rebels executed a running game better the first time around, shooting 50 percent as a team as Dejean-Jones and guards Deville Smith and Kevin Olekaibe combined for 54 points.
“I think they will play as fast as they can play and still try to pound the ball inside,” Rice said. “Williams is capable of going for 30 if you don’t pay special attention to him.”
UNLV forward Khem Birch participated in about half of Tuesday’s practice while dealing with flu-like symptoms, but he will start today, said Rice, who closed the book on Kirk’s comments from last month.
“Kirk looks to me like one of the best big players in our conference,” Rice said. “He’s got a high basketball IQ, and he can score in a variety of ways on all parts of the court. He’s a very efficient defender and a relentless rebounder. I have a lot of respect for a guy who’s an all-conference player.
“He seems like a classy guy to me. His dad was a high school coach. I can’t get into his mind. It’s just one of those things that happen sometimes. I chalk it up to the fact that 19-, 22-year-old guys sometimes say things that they don’t exactly mean.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.