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No. 25 New Mexico holds off No. 24 UNLV in tough Mountain West opener

Jan 10, 2013, 12:31 AM EDT

New Mexico UNLV AP

The Mountain West is going to be the most exciting conference west of the Mississippi this season. Not convinced? Enter “Exhibit A,” UNLV-New Mexico Wednesday night.

Behind 23 points and eight rebounds from big man Alex Kirk, No. 25 New Mexico fought off a late push from No. 24 UNLV to win, 65-60, at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.

New Mexico had trouble sealing the game with free throws down the stretch, but Tony Snell sunk two with eight seconds remaining finally put the game out of reach.

Poor shooting and bad shot selection played UNLV early in the first half, allowing New Mexico to jump out to a 7-2 lead three minutes in, but more ball movement made it nearly even through a majority of the first half.

But then the New Mexico defense cooled the Rebel attack and went on a 7-1 run to extend the lead to seven points.

Part of those struggles were because star freshman Anthony Bennett was not involved in the first half, scoring just four points. From the first possession of the second half, it was clear that UNLV wanted Bennett involved.

His baseline jumper gave him the first two points of his eight in the second half, though he picked up his fourth foul with just over 14 minutes to go. His absence allowed New Mexico back into the game.

The Rebels are also working to find their offensive identity when point guard Anthony Marshall is on the bench. Without a well-defined ball-handler for UNLV, New Mexico pressured defensively and the Rebels again began to take bad shots.

Against three athletic and highly skilled UNLV frontcourt players in Anthony Bennett, Mike Moser, and Khem Birch, New Mexico’s Alex Kirk was supposed to be challenged.

Instead, Kirk outplayed all of them, scoring 16 of his 23 points in the first half.

Kirk’s play set the tone and, at times, visibly frustrated the UNLV front line. Bennett picking up his fourth foul changed the way he was able to play, and Birch eventually fouled out Wednesday.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_