rebels basketball:

UNLV’s Olekaibe ready for homecoming at Fresno State in league opener

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Kevin Olekaibe signals a successful three-point shot against Arizona State during their game Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack.

Kevin Olekaibe

UNLV's Kevin Olekaibe (3) dodges a ball during warm-ups before the start of the game versus Cal-State Fullerton on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013. Launch slideshow »

When asked what he remembers about the UNLV basketball team’s two upset defeats against Fresno State last season, junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones didn’t hesitate giving an answer.

Fresno State won just 11 games in 2012-13 and finished in last place in the Mountain West. Yet, it handled UNLV — twice.

But when the Rebels open league play at noon Wednesday at Fresno State, they won’t have to defend against the one player they had no answers for in those head-scratching setbacks.

“I remember this guy to my right lighting it up,” Dejean-Jones said last week, looking at teammate Kevin Olekaibe, who played last season at Fresno State and had two of his best games against UNLV.

Olekaibe, a local product from Cimarron-Memorial High, transferred to UNLV over the summer and became eligible days before the opener after the NCAA granted him a hardship waiver.

Olekaibe left Fresno State before his senior season because his father is ill in a Las Vegas hospice, paralyzed from the waist down after suffering two strokes. He left not knowing if the NCAA would approve his waiver, or if UNLV needed another guard.

Turns out, he’s been one of the Rebels’ most consistent players and their best outside shooter, making 34 of his 3-pointers — more than 20 better than any other Rebel.

And, make no doubt about it, when it comes to playing Fresno State, having Olekaibe in the UNLV lineup sure beats what happened last season.

Olekaibe scored 13 points and eight assists when Fresno State beat UNLV last March at the Thomas & Mack Center. He had 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting in February when the Bulldogs topped the Rebels in the first meeting.

Now he’ll be one of UNLV’s best weapons against Fresno State.

“It will be a little awkward because I played three years there,” he said. “But I know my teammates got my back. I’m not going to try to go in there and do something out of the ordinary. I’m still going to play my game.

“Coach Rice gives us a lot of freedom to do what we need to do. I’m not going to rush anything. I know my teammates are there for me. They know this is a big one.”

UNLV (9-4) enters on a six-game winning streak, scoring 80 or more points in its past five games, playing its best ball of the season. The same is true of Olekaibe.

After making just 6 of 29 on 3-pointers during a three-game stretch two weeks ago, including 1 of 10 against Sacred Heart, Olekaibe said he logged extra hours working on his technique. He responded by scoring 17 points and making 4 of 8 on his 3-pointers Dec. 23 against Mississippi State, and making 4 of 7 on 3-pointers last Saturday against Cal State Fullerton.

Duplicating the effort, whether it’s against Fresno State (7-6), or any other Mountain West team, is Olekaibe’s sole focus. The goal, after all, is to become the first UNLV team since 1991-92 in Jerry Tarkanian’s final season to win a league regular season title.

“One of our goals will always be to try to compete for and try to win our conference regular season title,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We understand the tremendous challenge of what that means with all of the good teams in the league.”

Even though Fresno State wasn’t one of those good teams last season, it sure played that way against UNLV. Fresno State won 61-52 at UNLV on Senior Day and 64-55 at home earlier in the season.

“What happened last year is what happened last year,” Dejean-Jones said. “This is a new year.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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