Stevens: Lobos Seek Payback on UNLV Rebels' Floor
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  02/18/2014

New Mexico Lobos Mountain West Basketball – At UNLV

Who/When: 9:05 p.m. (MT), Wednesday; New Mexico (19-5, 10-2 MW) at UNLV (17-8, 8-4)

On TV: ESPN2 (DirecTV 209, Comcast 253, DISH 144)

On The Radio: 770-AM KKOB/Lobo Radio Network

GoLobos.com: Game Story, Statistics, Quotes, Post-Game Interviews

By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.

It’s a game of significance and meaning. It’s pivotal. It’s important. It’s a game in which one team will fiercely defend its home turf and another team will try to take something away. It’s a game of high athleticism and high talent.

It’s a game meaningful to one team trying to scratch its way into second place in the Mountain West race and vital to another team chasing the MW title. It’s a game of pride and payback.

And, in a way, none of that makes the game any better or any different because it’s also the New Mexico Lobos and the UNLV Rebels.  It’s a game of history and memory – and a game of now.

“They are going to need it,” said Lobo Kendall Williams of any and all extras that UNLV might throw out for this visit by New Mexico. “They are going to need all their fan support.

"They are going to need their best game because we are coming out to Vegas for business and we are coming out to take what they took from us.”

The Rebels know all that. When Rebels and Lobos battle on the hard court, it’s full body armor. It’s hammer vs. hammer, steel vs. steel. First one to flinch probably loses. The rules of engagement would be “anything goes”, if it wasn’t for the men in stripes with the whistles. This is like standing between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

“This is one we really need,” said Williams. “They need to bring it all because we’re coming for it.”

When you play the Lobos, you need to bring it or you lose.  Ditto for when you play the Rebels.

“You have to be able to attack them,” said Lobo coach Craig Neal. “You have to get to the line. You can’t let their pressure bother you.”

The Lobos and the Rebels are talented and capable of playing the game at a high level.  The two teams might be coming off their best halves of basketball.  Vegas in a 69 percent second-half shooting exhibition in a 73-62 win at Utah State.  New Mexico in a 48-24 first half the Lobos slapped down on Nevada.

“We have to come out with intensity and play harder and hopefully we’ll play better,” said Neal.

“It’s a big week,” said Williams referring to Wednesday’s run with UNLV and Saturday’s Pit battle with San Diego State. “At the end of the day, we’re looking for a championship.”

The Lobos are 10-2 in the MW chasing 11-1 San Diego State.  The Rebels are at 8-4, but most likely out of time and games to climb to the top of the Mountain. They could still be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed for the upcoming Mountain West Tournament. The Rebs probably are envisioning the Lobos going 0-and-2 this week and joining the Rebs with four league losses.

If UNLV still has visions of an NCAA at-large bid dancing in its head, the Rebels need to finish the MW race with a fury and follow up with good things in the MW tourney.  A regular-season sweep of New Mexico would be a nice addition to the UNLV resume.

The Lobos want the MW title and a loss at Vegas would damage that quest.  UNM also wants payback.  Vegas beat UNM 76-73 in The Pit.

“Anytime you get beat at your place and then go back to the other person’s place for this pivotal of a game, 'revenge' is always the word that comes to mind,” said Williams. “We are going into a crazy environment where sometimes we haven’t gotten wins in, but we feel very confident in how we’re playing.”

The Rebels are an athletic team that can turn the game up a notch on both ends of the floor.  On offense, they have four players in double figures in Bryce Dejean-Jones (13.7), Khem Birch (11.4), Roscoe Smith (11.2) and Kevin Olekaibe (10.5).

“It starts with Bryce and he was a major factor in their win here, obviously. We need to take him out of rhythm and make sure he is struggling all 40 minutes. We need to be able to clamp down and play them defensively,”

Dejean-Jones had 23 in The Pit, 11-of-13 at the line. Smith had 17, Olekaibe 14 (4-of-5 from 3-point range) and Birch had 11 points and 11 boards.

Smith and Birch combine for 20.7 boards per game on the season.  Olekaibe has shot 156 treys on the year and Birch has 95 blocks – nine in his last game.  “Think about all the other shots that he impacted,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice.

“He’s a monster,” said Williams of Birch. “He is someone who could be defensive player of the year. We have to get him knocked off the block.”

Said Neal: “If you drive them, you have to know Birch is coming.”

The Lobos “Big Three” of Williams, 7-foot Alex Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow top UNM in scoring.  Bairstow is putting up a Player of The Year season averaging 20.3 points and 7.2 boards.  So, is Williams with a 17.2 scoring average, a 5.0 assist average while usually guarding the top perimeter threat on the other team.  Kirk averages 14.6 points and 8.5 boards and has 60 blocked shots.

“It’s pick your poison with them,” said UNLV's Rice. “They are difficult to get stops.”

The challenge of beating the Rebels in the Thomas & Mack Center might actually be a good thing for the Lobos this week.  The Rebels get your attention and take it off Saturday’s visit by SDSU.

“We’re only thinking about UNLV,” said Neal. “I don’t know if a kid should look anywhere ahead of what they (Rebels) do. They got beat by UNLV. I think they understand the importance of this game.”

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net.