ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — EJ Harkless scored 25 points, including 21 in the second half, to spark UNLV to a 84-77 win Saturday night over No. 21 New Mexico.
The Rebels (12-3, 1-2 Mountain West) had four other players in double figures, with Keyshon Gilbert adding 14.
“We put the ball in EJ’s hands tonight, and he made really good decisions,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said. “And he made things happen.”
Morris Udeze scored 22 with 13 rebounds to lead the Lobos (14-2, 2-2) and Jamal Mashburn Jr. had 19, but star guard Jaelen House was held scoreless in the second half and ended up with 12 points.
Harkless added six rebounds, five assists and made all seven of his free throws.
New Mexico scored the game’s first eight points, holding the Rebels scoreless for the first three minutes.
“Being more patient,” Kruger said he told his team. “That’s what we were talking about. They really sped us up early. It became a shootout there in the first four minutes and they scored a lot of points.”
Trailing 43-38 at the half, UNLV opened the second half with a 9-0 run to take its first lead, an advantage that eventually grew to 63-55 after a Harkless layup and free throw after a flop call on House.
“An absolute poor, poor start in the second half,” Lobos coach Richard Pitino said. “A 9-0 run. We tried to claw back. We were really, really close. We just couldn’t quite get over the hump. Just have to try not to get too emotional about it. Absolutely at the beginning of the second half, we were not ready to go. And that’s on me. We have to be better coming out of halftime for sure.”
For New Mexico, the question entering Saturday’s game was whether it could rebound from its first loss Tuesday at Fresno State after starting off 14-0. The Lobos did not respond well to the challenge, trailing the bulk of the second half after leading the entire first half.
Riding a disappointing start to conference play, UNLV turned to its defensive prowess as it came into the game leading the country in turnover margin (8.0) and second in forced turnovers per game (20.7) while holding opponents to 64.5 points. Although the numbers were off for the Rebels, they produced 21 points off turnovers.
Another plus for UNLV was holding the dynamic House scoreless in the second half. Kruger said that was a team effort.
“In the second half, we did a much better job of having aggressive switches,” he said. “There was only a handful of times where we didn’t come together and communicate and making sure we were in front of the ball. With a guy like House, as fast as he is, as quick as he is, and his instincts are where his are, any mistake you make, he can exploit it. And I think the guys did a really good job of making the looks tough and keeping their hands up but not giving him the layups or the free throws.”
Pitino, meanwhile, praised the Rebels’ second-half performance and criticized his team’s play after intermission.
“They were terrific offensively and we were pretty poor defensively in the second half,” Pitino said. “They went and got it. Harkless was terrific in the second half. They weathered the storm. We were close, but we couldn’t quite close it out.”