ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)—New Mexico’s visit to UNLV offers plenty of tantalizing angles—a showdown between Top 25 squads, two of the hottest teams in the country and a matchup of top Mountain West players in Darington Hobson of the Lobos and Tre’Von Willis of the Rebels.
Plus, the winner Wednesday takes over first place in the conference standings, and the No. 15 Lobos want payback against the last team to beat them.
“Revenge is on our minds,” Hobson said. “They came in here and played a great game and stole one on our court. It’s going to be a big-time game. There’s going to be a lot of adversity. We’ve just got to stick together and I think we can come out with a win.”
With only one senior on the roster, the Lobos (21-3, 7-2) have overachieved based on preseason forecasts that listed them fifth in the nine-team Mountain West. Now, after winning seven straight, New Mexico faces a big road test at No. 23 UNLV (19-4, 7-2).
In seasons past, road trips sometimes made previous Lobo squads quake in their sneakers. But under third-year coach Steve Alford, New Mexico has improved away from The Pit.
Alford’s teams are 20-15 in true road games, including a 6-2 mark this season with losses at Oral Roberts and San Diego State. In the eight-plus seasons before he came to Albuquerque, it took the Lobos 87 games to reach 20 road wins.
Alford said he expects UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center to be just as hostile toward the Lobos as The Pit is toward New Mexico opponents, but he noted his team has responded to tough challenges all season.
“I’m not going to go into this week saying it’s an impossible week, a difficult week,” he said. “Our guys have found ways of staying in games and winning games. Hopefully, we can do that again.”
The Rebels have won five straight and the teams’ rematch should be a thriller. On Jan. 9, UNLV ended New Mexico’s 19-game homecourt winning streak with a 74-62 victory at The Pit. Willis scored 20 points and Kendall Wallace made seven 3-pointers.
“I said it when they beat us—I thought that was the best team we’ve played,” said Alford, whose squad also beat BYU. “At least in how things match up against us, I still think this is the best team that we play. … We’ve got to go to Vegas and put together 40 really solid minutes.”
After UNLV’s victory in Albuquerque, the Lobos regrouped and started over. They’ve won seven straight after an 88-86 overtime defeat of visiting San Diego State last weekend.
Hobson was sensational, scoring 29 points and making two free throws in the closing seconds. He set career highs with four 3-pointers and 43 minutes and even swished a 55-footer at the halftime buzzer—a basket that turned out to be more than a highlight in such a close game.
Hobson also had 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and zero turnovers.
“He had a special week,” Alford said. “We only played one game, but he did more in one game than a lot will do in two games.”
But Willis was equally spectacular. He had 15 points, eight rebounds and four assists in a 78-50 win at Wyoming. Then in an 88-74 homecourt victory over BYU, Willis scored a career-high 33 points with eight assists, no turnovers, two steals and a blocked shot.
“Obviously, he was a big factor throughout. A pretty efficient 33, if you will,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “He missed a couple late, ended up 11-for-20, but did a good job moving the ball, creating opportunities for teammates. He kept everybody in the flow.”