Each of the four dunks freshman forward Anthony Bennett threw down made a powerful statement, followed by an exclamation point.
“We were just tired of losing,” sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones said.
Heeding their coach’s command to play as a “desperate team,” Bennett and Dejean-Jones led by example in a game UNLV never trailed.
Bennett totaled 17 points and 12 rebounds, and Dejean-Jones had 16 points and nine rebounds to lift the Rebels to a 64-55 victory over No. 15 New Mexico on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“Losing isn’t fun,” Bennett said, “especially if it’s against Boise State or Fresno State.”
After a trying week and two losses on the road, UNLV came alive before a crowd of 17,738, with everyone in the building sensing the importance of the game for the desperate home team.
Three days after falling to the worst team in the Mountain West, the Rebels (18-6, 5-4) seized the moment and throttled the first-place Lobos (20-4, 7-2). Bennett opened the scoring with a 3-pointer and followed two minutes later with a dunk.
New Mexico coach Steve Alford called timeout, but nothing he tried could stem UNLV’s momentum.
A surge by Dejean-Jones, who made a 3-pointer, dunked and went baseline for a reverse layup to score seven straight points, stretched the Rebels’ lead to 24-10 with 8:30 remaining in the half.
“We’ve seen flashes this year of what Bryce can be, and that’s an explosive player on both ends of the floor,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “He was huge for us in this win. The best is yet to come for him.
“Our backs were definitely against the wall. It’s safe to say the last seven days were not the highlight of the season for us. We talked about learning from it, and all we can do is move forward. It doesn’t make up for the loss at Boise, and it doesn’t make up for the loss at Fresno, but at the same time, it’s a terrific win for us.”
Freshman guard Katin Reinhardt added 16 points, hitting four of the Rebels’ nine 3-pointers, and senior point guard Anthony Marshall finished with 11 points, six assists and three steals.
UNLV displayed improved perimeter shooting, connecting on 9 of 22 3-pointers, and cranked up its intensity on the defensive end to hold the Lobos to 33.9 percent shooting from the field.
Rice’s reserves contributed only two points, and they came from seldom-used junior forward Carlos Lopez-Sosa, who brought energy off the bench by grabbing five rebounds and diving to secure a loose ball late in the game.
“Good things happen for good people,” said Rice, who credited Lopez-Sosa for “waiting his turn” after never getting off the bench Wednesday at Fresno State.
Dejean-Jones scored 13 points, all in the first 11½ minutes, to help put UNLV up 37-23 at halftime.
The Rebels’ largest lead of the second half was 16 points. New Mexico sliced its deficit to 56-48 on Alex Kirk’s putback with 3:39 remaining.
With a chance to get within six points at the two-minute mark, the 7-foot Kirk spun to the basket and had a layup attempt blocked by sophomore center Khem Birch.
Kirk finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds. But Lobos guards Kendall Williams and Tony Snell combined for just 11 points on 4-for-19 shooting, with Dejean-Jones playing a key role on defense.
Bennett also played both ends, grabbing nine defensive rebounds and blocking three shots.
Kirk scored 23 points, and Bennett, limited by foul trouble, was held to 12 points in New Mexico’s 65-60 victory in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 9.
“I think we came out more physical and more fired up,” said Bennett, who shot 8-for-14 from the field.
Dejean-Jones, who made three 3-pointers, said he expects UNLV to start climbing in the conference standings after starting the day in fifth place.
“It might be the turning point for us,” he said. “We were all really excited for this game. I believe that’s the best we’ve played as a team so far.”
The Rebels, 1-4 on the road in league play, look to carry their momentum to a Wednesday game at Air Force.
“We need to be a desperate team on the defensive end,” Rice said. “We certainly dug ourselves a deep hole. Again, it’s one game.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.