Freshman point guard Dedan Thomas Jr.’s poise has been key for the UNLV men’s basketball team as it has gone through the rigors of Mountain West play.
On Saturday night, in what is considered one of the toughest college basketball arenas, Thomas wasn’t rattled in his first game in The Pit in Albuquerque.
Thomas scored a career-high 25 points, and the Rebels made all six of their free throws in the final 23 seconds to claim an 80-77 road win over No. 25-ranked New Mexico on Saturday night.
“Competitively, we took a breath and figured out ways to get things done,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said in his postgame interview with Learfield Sports. “Hustle plays won the game. We got to understand that your reward in this conference is getting another (tough game).”
Thomas made 66.7 percent of his shots (8 of 12) for UNLV. Junior forward Rob Whaley Jr. added 16 points, and fifth-year forward Kalib Boone contributed 11 points as he battled foul trouble most of the second half.
UNLV (13-9, 6-4 Mountain West) has won its last four games and has won 10 of its last 11 against New Mexico (19-5, 7-4).
The Rebels shot 49 percent from the field and held New Mexico to a 35 percent shooting night. They scored 48 points in the paint.
“It’s about being stubborn. It’s about being disciplined,” Kruger said. “It’s about making sure we get a paint touch, so we can get back defensively if we miss it, or potentially get an offensive rebound. Tonight was just that. If you want to win road games, you got to make shots at the rim.”
UNLV led for 19 minutes in the first half, but a New Mexico three-point play in the final seconds gave the Lobos a 40-39 halftime lead.
The Rebels quickly regained the lead, going on a 15-3 run during a 4½-minute stretch to lead 54-45 with 14:26 remaining.
New Mexico answered with a 12-0 run as UNLV went scoreless the next 5:09. A flagrant one foul call on Thomas helped the Lobos regain the lead at 57-54 midway through the second half.
As both teams traded the lead several times, Thomas hit a pair of midrange jumpers to put UNLV back ahead 68-63 with over five minutes left.
With 1:08 left and the game tied at 72, Boone made a contested layup to give UNLV a lead it never gave up. Thomas made two free throws with 23 seconds left, and the Rebels made their next four at the line to keep the lead and hold on for the win.
“That’s what makes New Mexico a great team. They adjust and they play accordingly,” Kruger said. “That’s what we’re continuing to get better where we adjust after we didn’t like (how it was going) early.”
In a sloppy first few minutes of the game, UNLV attacked the basket to take a 7-0 lead at the 15:58 mark. New Mexico had three early turnovers and didn’t have a field goal for the first six minutes after missing its first four shots.
Brooklyn Hicks converted on a fast-break layup after a Kalib Boone block to put the Rebels ahead 16-4 with 13:22 left for their largest first-half lead.
New Mexico erased the first-half deficit by making the most of its extra chances with 11 second-chance points and nine offensive rebounds.
UNLV next plays at Fresno State at 8 p.m. Wednesday.