Williams fulfills pregame promise
Kendall Williams said all the overconfi dent things that rival teams want to hear.
Before Wednesday’s game, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year said the Runnin’ Rebels “are going to need all their fan support.”
Williams talked the talk, then backed it up by scoring a game-high 29 points and grabbing seven rebounds as New Mexico (20-5, 11-2) came to the Thomas & Mack Center and won 68-56 over UNLV (17-9, 8-5) on Wednesday.
“I think a big part of what got him going is that we beat them in ‘The Pit,’” said head coach Dave Rice about Williams. “That’s what good players do: They put the team on their back and they lead.”
Not only did Williams score from any spot on the fl oor, he was effi cient at it. He fi nished the night shooting 11-of-17 from the fl oor, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range.
Williams also said before the game that the Lobos “should be able to defend them, no problem. Slow them down, and then get what we want at the other side.” New Mexico’s defense did, in fact, hold UNLV to 31.7 percent shooting from the fl oor, and 3-of-21 from 3-point range.
Yet UNLV was able to stick around.
Trailing by as much as 17 points in the second half, UNLV went on a 12-2 run to make it a 54-47 game with 8:41 to go. New Mexico big man Cameron Bairstow — who finished with 18 points — also had four fouls at that point.
The Rebels were unable to capitalize inside in an attempt to get Bairstow out of the game. But Williams hit a dagger 3-pointer over the 6-foot-10 Chris Wood with eight minutes left. UNLV never got close the rest of the way.
“I wasn’t frustrated that I didn’t get the ball,” Birch said. “It was just the fact that we shot 3-pointers instead of just trying to get to the basket and get [Bairstow] out of the game.”
Birch continued his run of double-doubles with his fourth in the last five games, finishing with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Birch would have had a much better scoring night if UNLV’s best free throw shooter — at almost 76 percent — shot better at the line.
He went 3-of-10 at the free throw line, all coming in the second half. The Rebels finished 15-of-26 overall.
“I was shocked. I hadn’t missed free throws like that,” Birch said. “I kind of took the fault in the first half. It could’ve been a two-point game.”
Starting point guard Deville Smith did not start for the second straight game after being late to the afternoon shootaround.
He didn’t start Saturday against Utah State after being late to the team bus.
“I think that it’s something we’ll address,” Rice said. “It hurts your team, it hurts your teammates when you show up late like that.”
UNLV knows it missed a great opportunity to keep pace in the conference standings, and let it slip away. But the chances continue to fade for UNLV, knowing that the best possible bet is to have a strong finish to the season — which includes one more matchup with San Diego State — or nothing less than a conference championship and earn an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament.
The Rebels remain in third place, but the implications for Saturday’s game at Boise State become greater with the Broncos a half-game behind the Rebels.
Rice still feels he has a good team, but that can only get you so far for the selection committee. Yet the reality might be settling in.
“I’m not saying we’re out of it,” Birch said, “but our chances are very slim.”