UNLV defeats New Mexico 86-74 in coach Todd Simon's debut
LAS VEGAS (AP) Roughly 48 hours after being named UNLV's interim coach, Todd Simon said he needed one thing to find a state of serenity - his first game to begin.
''The game was calming, the practices were calming, the parts where it's just basketball are calming,'' he said. ''It's something you dream of and love, it's calming.''
A win didn't hurt, either.
Patrick McCaw scored 18 points to lead the Rebels to an 86-74 victory over New Mexico on Tuesday night, as UNLV snapped a three-game losing streak to highlight Simon's debut, after taking over for Dave Rice on Sunday.
Four other Rebels scored in double figures, including Stephen Zimmerman, who scored 15 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and Ike Nwamu, who also scored 15.
''It's been a whirlwind, just a few days ago (this is) not even a blip on the radar on my mind,'' said Simon, 35, who served as a graduate assistant under former current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, when he was in charge at UNLV, from 2004 to 2006. Simon coached at nationally renowned Findlay Prep, which is roughly 20 minutes from UNLV, and led the Pilots to a 35-1 record in 2012-13, before joining Rice's staff.
UNLV lost its first three Mountain West Conference games by a combined six points, including late-game collapses against Fresno State and Colorado State. This time, even when the Lobos made a late run, UNLV was able to stave off the rally and hold on for the win.
The Rebels (10-7, 1-3) had lost five of their past six games, and with the season seemingly spiraling out of control, Rice was fired in the middle of his fifth season.
''They played with great pace today,'' Simon said. ''We took what we needed to when we'd get up and down the floor. They trusted each other and once they got into sets, they did exactly what they needed to do. They executed, they hit screens, they waited on screens and I'm just really, really glad that they got the results.''
While McCaw led the scoring ledger, it was Zimmerman who stood out, as the 7-foot freshman played his best game of the season.
''I was just trying to have fun,'' said Zimmerman, who recorded his sixth double-double of the season. ''One thing we talked about was using everything that's been going on as fuel. We were taking it serious but we wanted to have fun.''
Simon promised he would commit to full-court defensive pressure, and it showed, as the Lobos (10-7, 3-1) struggled from the field, shooting just 24 of 60 field goals (40 percent). New Mexico came into the game hitting 47.4 percent from the field on the year.
Elijah Brown finished with 24 to lead the Lobos, and Cullen Neal added 14.
Up by six at halftime, the Rebels used a 28-13 run to open their biggest lead of the night, 64-43, midway through the second half, and cruised to their first conference win of the season.
After falling behind early, 4-2, the Rebels used a 9-0 run to set the tempo for an up-tempo game. Using an inside-out scheme, the Rebels were able to place Ben Carter and Zimmerman in the paint to set up their perimeter game.
New Mexico battled back to tie the game at 19 with a little less than nine minutes left in the half, but the Rebels went on a 12-2 run to pull ahead, 31-21.
New Mexico: Brown, the team's leading scorer, came into the contest having made 31 straight free throws, after shooting perfect from the charity stripe his previous three games. Brown finished 1 of 2 from the free throw line.
UNLV: The 86 points scored by the Runnin' Rebels was their second-highest offensive output since a 93-73 win over Chaminade on Nov. 24, in Maui. UNLV defeated South Dakota, 103-68, on Dec.22.
CLASS ACT - Since Rice's removal as coach of the Rebels, the former Runnin' Rebel who was part of the 1990 National Championship team has shown nothing less than class in meeting with the media, encouraging his now-former players, speaking privately with Simon and even tweeting Monday night: ''Runnin' Rebel fans - Get to the Thomas & Mack Tuesday night to support the guys. (hash)UnlvFamily.''
SHOWING RESPECT - Nwamu paid respect to Rice at the post-game press conference, refusing to answer negatively when asked if a change was good for the team. Said Nwamu: ''Honestly I think we probably would have played the same way if (Rice) was coaching as well. There was just a lot of little things so we made it a point of emphasis that we can't let those little things repeat themselves.''
PRESSURE COOKER - While the Rebels appeared ready to secure their first conference win, Kunzer-Murphy admitted her biggest concern leading up to Simon's first game was the pressure that comes with a change in the middle of a season. ''We were concerned about how the team responds, how the coaches respond, how everybody responds. I've been to practices, the kids are resilient and the kids are focused. But I would be kidding if I didn't say I was a little bit nervous about just how it's going to happen, very emotional, very proud of them.''
New Mexico hosts Wyoming on Saturday.
UNLV hosts Air Force on Saturday.