UNLV faces New Mexico as both teams seek to avoid 0-2 start in MWC

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Emotional hangovers are inevitable during a long basketball season, so UNLV coach Lon Kruger acknowledged his team might be dealing with one.

Kruger is not getting sympathetic and playing a violin, however. If his players are feeling down, he said, they need to pick themselves up, and as soon as possible.

"It’s a tough start," he said. "But at some point, you turn the corner to the next game. You bounce back and turn your attention forward to the next one."

The Rebels squandered a late lead in a 77-73 loss at Brigham Young in the Mountain West Conference opener Wednesday. The next one will be no easier.

UNLV (12-3, 0-1 MWC) tries to avoid more of a downhill slide when it faces 15th-ranked New Mexico (14-2, 0-1) at 1 p.m. today in The Pit, where the Lobos are 10-0 this season. The loser will dig itself a hole — but not quite a grave — in the conference standings.

New Mexico lost its league opener 74-64 at San Diego State on Tuesday, so bouncing back is the unwanted theme for both teams.

"This is going to be a great game. It’s going to go down to the wire, two teams fighting like crazy to earn a split and not start 0-2 in a very difficult league," Lobos coach Steve Alford said. "Does this make or break you in the league? No.

"UNLV probably had the best team in our league beat on their home floor, but they just couldn’t finish it. We’re upset that we lost our opener. But it’s a long season. You could lose the first two games and then rip off 10 wins in a row."

The Rebels need to settle some troubling issues or prepare for a splitting headache.

UNLV allowed BYU to pull down 19 offensive rebounds, an inexcusable total against almost any opponent. But the Cougars were not even the more athletic team, just the more aggressive one. The Lobos lack neither talent nor size, with 6-foot-8-inch A.J. Hardeman, 6-7 Darington Hobson and 6-6 Roman Martinez attacking inside.

"Our rebounding has been inconsistent all year," said Kruger, who put emphasis on working on that weakness in Thursday’s practice.

Junior guard Tre’Von Willis scored 24 points against BYU, and sophomore point guard Oscar Bellfield had eight points and nine assists. Matt Shaw and Kendall Wallace each made two 3-pointers to provide scoring support.

Still, Derrick Jasper, sophomore Chace Stanback and freshman Anthony Marshall — three other players in the rotation’s top seven — shot a combined 4-for-16.

Jasper, a junior transfer from Kentucky, is no stranger to hostile road games, but he faded from the picture and passed up open shots in the second half. Jasper came back with one of his better practices Thursday by repeatedly driving and hitting layups and jumpers.

"We need more guys to step up and produce offensively, and not just Derrick," Kruger said.

New Mexico’s Hobson and Martinez will attract much of the Rebels’ defensive attention. Martinez is a do-everything senior forward similar to former UNLV star Rene Rougeau.

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher recently called Hobson "the best pro prospect in the league." Hobson was born in Las Vegas and attended Western High before moving to Texas at age 15.

The left-handed Hobson, who played two years at the College of Eastern Utah, leads the Lobos with averages of 16.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.

Hobson’s play has been a big reason for New Mexico’s surprising start that included home victories over California, Dayton and Texas Tech.

"It doesn’t matter who we play at home, we’re playing in front of a packed house," Alford said. "Lon’s teams always have been extremely consistent, and that’s why he’s the coach that he is. UNLV will come in here with a big mindset to win.

"This is a new season. It’s season No. 2 for us, and season No. 1 really couldn’t have gone much better. If you had told me back around Halloween that our team would be 14-1 going into league play, I would have thought you were probably crazy."

NOTES — The Lobos beat the Rebels 73-69 in overtime last season in Albuquerque. UNLV led 32-26 at halftime. … Alford has used the same starting lineup in all 16 games this season.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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