New Mexico came to Las Vegas in first place in the Mountain West and left atop the conference standings.
That fact, and the play of 7-foot sophomore center Alex Kirk, were among the few positives the No. 15 Lobos could take from a 64-55 loss to UNLV on Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
New Mexico (20-4, 7-2) was out of sync offensively, launching 22 3-point field goals, matching the Rebels’ output. The difference was the Lobos made four 3-pointers to UNLV’s nine.
“Our game plan wasn’t to shoot as many 3s as UNLV,” Lobos coach Steve Alford said. “Our effort was good, but we didn’t show a whole lot of poise in the first half. That’s not who we are, and we allowed their pressure to get us out of character.”
UNLV coach Dave Rice said he didn’t want to allow the Lobos to attack from the wing, and by keeping Tony Snell and Kendall Williams in check, the Rebels accomplished their primary defensive goal. Williams shot 1 of 9 from the field, and Snell had two points at halftime and totaled six on 3-for-10 shooting.
“Our defense was terrific,” Rice said after his team limited New Mexico to 34 percent shooting from the field. “We did a good job of having our wings cover their wings.”
But the Rebels (18-6, 5-4) again struggled to stop Kirk, who had 17 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. He gave the Lobos hope when it appeared the Rebels were going to run away in the second half.
“I was able to get some offensive rebounds and get some easy put-backs,” said Kirk, who had a season-high 23 points in a 65-60 win over UNLV on Jan. 9. “It’s all about being physical and creating opportunities underneath.”
Cameron Bairstow, the Lobos’ 6-foot-9-inch junior power forward, was a nice complement to Kirk, finishing with 13 points and six rebounds. After that, though, it was hard for Alford to find anything positive.
“We basically held them in the 50s (in points) and to 37 percent shooting,” Alford said, discounting Anthony Marshall’s four free throws and Katin Reinhardt’s layup in the final minute that got the Rebels’ total into the 60s. “Our bigs had a big night. That was our game plan. We just didn’t do it enough.”
The Lobos never led and trailed by 16 points 4:26 into the second half. They pulled to within 56-48 with 3:34 to play, and the closest they came was 60-53 with 43 seconds left.
“We had an opportunity to put some distance between us and UNLV, and we didn’t do it,” Kirk said. “We’re still in first place, and it shows we’re still a dangerous team. We had two of our best guys have a tough night, and we didn’t shoot the ball well as a team, and we still had a chance to get a win.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Lobos. New Mexico travels to Fresno State on Wednesday, hosts Boise State on Saturday, plays at Colorado State on Feb. 23 and hosts San Diego State on Feb. 27.
“We break our schedule into segments, and we’re in the second segment,” Alford said. “Our goal is to win the conference regular season, so that’s where our focus is.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.