Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013 | 11:15 p.m.
When the UNLV basketball team failed to score in the final four minutes Nov. 26 in a home loss to Illinois, junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones took the defeat personally.
He missed a crucial 3-pointer down the stretch as the Rebels squandered what appeared to be a comfortable lead. He also had the ball in his hands on the last play of the game and the Rebels trailing by two points, but couldn’t help them tie the game.
So, within five minutes of the game ending, when his teammates were in the locker room and fans were still leaving the Thomas & Mack Center, Dejean-Jones was on the court practicing. He took numerous jump shots that night, likely knowing this wouldn’t the last time his team needed him to carry them.
Saturday, Dejean-Jones did just that in arguably his finest game as a Rebel, scoring a game-high 19 points in 23 minutes with seven rebounds and six assists in a 83-64 victory against visiting Cal State Fullerton.
“That is the Bryce Dejean-Jones that we need to try to contend for a regular-season league title,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “He was terrific in all aspects of the game.”
Dejean-Jones led four UNLV scorers in double figures, giving the Rebels a sixth straight victory and fifth straight game of scoring more than 80 points. They’ve won each game by at least 18 points, playing their best basketball since the collapse against Illinois in winning seven of their past eight games. The lone loss, of course, was a hard-fought defeat at No. 1 Arizona in a game the Rebels could have won.
In one quick month, the Rebels are feeling much better about themselves. They went from having a 2-3 record after losing to Illinois to closing the year with a 9-4 record and much confidence.
“I think every game you come out looking to do something better than the game before,” Dejean-Jones said.
Now, the games become more important.
This was UNLV’s last nonleague game before opening Mountain West play New Year’s Day at Fresno State. When Rice assembled the schedule, he booked the Cal State Fullerton game to give his team one last tuneup after the Christmas break.
Once they started with the improved play, easily beating Santa Clara and Mississippi State last week to win the Las Vegas Classic, Rice stressed to players the importance of continuing the momentum against Cal State Fullerton. It would be the wrong time for a setback in the progress.
“We wanted to keep our edge coming out of the Las Vegas Classic,” Rice said. “I think our guys understand we have a long way to go. We have a good basketball team, but a lot of things to work at.”
UNLV opened the game on a 9-0 scoring run and never trailed. It led 39-27 at halftime and then opened the second half on a 10-0 outburst to put the game firmly out of reach. Soon, the advantage grew to 27 points with the Rebels playing the style of basketball Rice has long envisioned — getting easy points in transition.
“We are all about defensive stops and pushing the ball in transition,” Rice said.
Roscoe Smith recorded his ninth double-double of the season with 17 points and 14 rebounds, making an efficient 7 of 10 shots. Kevin Olekaibe stretched the defense with his 3-point shooting, making 4 of 7 attempts to finish with 12 points. Khem Birch was again a force on the inside, scoring 12 points with 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.
And, just like that, it appears the Rebels have found their identity heading into conference play.
“We keep looking every day to get better as a team,” Dejean Jones said. “We are making progress, but still have a far ways to go.”
Deville Smith starts for Kendall Smith; hurts hamstring
Kendall Smith was late to practice Thursday after his flight back to Las Vegas following the break was late.
Rice said he isn’t sure which point guard will start New Year’s Day at Fresno State, partially because Deville Smith injured his hamstring in the second half against Cal State Fullerton. Rice said Deville Smith could have re-entered, but was held out as a precaution and to give third-stringer Daquan Cook more minutes.
Deville Smith finished with five points and three assists in 15 minutes, Kendall Smith had three points in 17 minutes and Cook made his lone shot to score two points in seven minutes.