This sort of UNLV effort will play well in March

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You want to bottle it. To gently unscrew the top and slowly pour in the fight, the determination, the unselfishness, the hustle, the terrific effort by Quintrell Thomas, the shooting accuracy of Tre’Von Willis, the will not to lose a game in an atmosphere where most teams would fade.

You want to snap a picture of those final grueling minutes of overtime in a place where your lungs burn with the mere thought of moving, with Thomas leaning over during a timeout, his arms wrapped around two teammates in a sign of unity and, well, to avoid not collapsing from fatigue.

You want to save it all for the next time.

If the NCAA Tournament bubble was still visible on UNLV’s resume when the Rebels strolled into a renovated and raucous Pit on Wednesday evening, it disappeared in one of the more impressive wins in recent times.

That the Rebels prevailed against New Mexico 77-74 is important enough for their NCAA prospects, which after consecutive road wins against Colorado State and the Lobos now appear overwhelmingly secure.

How they won here is even more notable.

They blew all of a 15-point second-half lead and played the final 10:13 without their leading scorer, but in such adversity UNLV discovered the kind of fight that allows teams at least a chance to win games in March.

"New Mexico made its run and we stood back up and toughed it out through overtime," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "The thing about this group — given how we have shot it — is that it has kept plugging and plugging along.

"I know that’s not the prettiest way to do it, but there’s something to be said for that grit."

It’s that kind of tenacity that helped UNLV overcome a Lobos team that shot 37 free throws to 21 for the Rebels; that survived a last-second shot from the Lobos in regulation to secure an extra five minutes of play; that propelled Thomas to by far his finest effort since transferring from Kansas.

He played 27 minutes and for someone who averages just over 14, must have felt like it was three times that at 5,200 feet.

But he battled.

Man, did Quintrell Thomas battle.

He scored a career-high 19 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, six at the offensive end. Of the team’s 10 points in overtime, Thomas had six. He was physical at both ends. He even finished some around the rim.

This is known as huge progress.

"I’m not going to lie, I was exhausted down the stretch," Thomas said. "But I fought as hard as I could every single time down the floor. I didn’t want to come out because I felt I was giving us the best chance to win. But I was tired.

"We knew that we had slipped back some and needed to make progress. After the Air Force game (an ugly 49-42 win), we understood that we couldn’t keep things going that way. We couldn’t run from our problems. I definitely feel that we’re now moving in the right direction."

Coaches will watch tape and see countless mistakes the untrained eye can’t, but it’s difficult to believe this version of the Rebels could play much better offensively than it did the first 20 minutes.

The Rebels shot the heck out of the ball. They made the extra pass. They attacked when opportunity allowed. They were patient and also aggressive at the correct times.

Willis made his first five shots and finished with 25 points for a team that scored 77 on a night Chace Stanback fouled out midway through the second half with two points. Willis afterward again hobbled on a gimpy knee packed in ice, saying he wasn’t sure upon arriving at The Pit how long (if at all) he could go. He went 40 minutes.

"The guys played with confidence," Kruger said. "That’s the key. The hope is we can be better, but we were certainly better than we have been. Confidence moving the ball, confidence the next pass will find a guy who will shoot it with confidence. All of that is great to see."

I don’t know what it means in the big picture, if more bracketology forecasts will now move UNLV off the 8-9 line and into a more desirable placement, if such a result will make any difference at all come Selection Sunday. Probably not.

But know this: When you win as the Rebels did here, with that kind of fight and determination and resiliency, someone needs to find a bottle big enough to save every last drop.

They just flat-out battled.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and Thursday on "Monsters of the Midday," Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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