Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 | 9:40 p.m.
Here are some observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 82-66 victory today against Mississippi State at the Orleans Arena in the championship game of the Las Vegas Classic:
What the game means: Another game, another step in the right direction. Although we were reminded tonight during Mississippi State’s brief second-half comeback that there is still work to be done, it’s obvious this isn’t the same UNLV basketball team as in mid-November. As crazy as it sounds, the Rebels have salvaged their season. For as bad as they played in the initial weeks of the season — remember, they didn’t win consecutive games for the first time until last week — they have quickly turned into a respectable team. They’ve won five straight games and have found their pace offensively, scoring a combined 174 points the past two games against semi-respectable opponents. They’ve even covered the point spread the past eight games. Like some fans, I prematurely chalked this season up to a rebuilding process, doubting the Rebels would make a fifth straight NCAA Tournament. Now, after watching them the past two nights, I’ve changed my tune. This is a team with much momentum, two solid players on the inside in Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, and some other valuable pieces. It could make for an interesting winter.
Olekaibe gets back shooting touch: Speaking of interesting pieces, Kevin Olekaibe broke out of a brief four-game shooting slump to score a team-best 17 points, connecting on 4 of 8 of his 3-pointers. In the past four games, he had made just 6 of 25 from long-range, recovering tonight to give UNLV that deep-ball threat vitally important to the success of the attack. Give credit to Olekaibe for continuing to fire up shots even though they weren’t falling. And give credit to UNLV coach Dave Rice for sticking with the shooter. Even though Olekaibe missed his last three attempts, you could tell he found his shooting rhythm again.
A quick look at the stat sheet: Deville Smith scored in double figures for the second straight night with 15 points to go along with five assists, and more important, he was named the Las Vegas Classic’s Most Valuable Player. Christian Wood had seven points and a pair of rebounds, scoring twice on alley-oop dunks. Still, the 6-foot-11 post player appears to be more comfortable heaving 3-pointers on the perimeter. Roscoe Smith continues to be one of the nation’s leading rebounders, posting a double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds. Jelan Kendrick filled multiple categories on the stat sheet, posting six points, five rebounds and four assists. And, with seconds remaining, walk-on Charles Rushman came off the bench to score two points on a nice move to the basket, where he stopped and made an 8-footer. The points yielded the loudest cheer of the night from the UNLV faithful at the Orleans Arena and prompted CBS Sports Network analyst Doug Gottlieb to pump his fist in appreciation. It’s nice to see a practice player such as Rushman getting the reward of court time — and his first career points.
Up next: UNLV’s final game of 2013 is Saturday against visiting Cal State Fullerton (5-7) at the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s another game the Rebels should easily win, likely continuing the momentum of the winning streak. It’s also the final game before Mountain West play, meaning it’s the last chance for bench players to solidify a role in the rotation before the New Year’s Day league opener at Fresno State. The Rebels are feeling pretty good about themselves heading into Christmas. That won’t change after Saturday’s game.