Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 | 7:30 p.m.
Here are some observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 73-69 victory today against visiting Boise State.
What the game means: Just when it appeared the Rebels were going to lose another home game, they did the unexpected. They rallied. They showed they still had some fight left in this season, erasing a double-digit second-half deficit — in the final few minutes, mind you — for arguably their best win of the season. They should have lost. With the exception of a brief scoring outburst early in the second half, the Rebels were outplayed until the final minutes. Instead of losing at home for a sixth time this season, the Rebels now have something they’ve desperately lacked this season: momentum. When Daquan Cook stole a pass to seal the victory, the players on the UNLV benched began celebrating the win. The home fans went crazy. Finally, there was something to cheer about. The season will come down to winning three games in three days in the Mountain West tournament. Win and UNLV will reach the NCAAs. Lose and it’s the NIT. A win like tonight will give players confidence they can prevail down the stretch. You can easily classify this as the Rebels’ best win of the season.
Team effort: There was no star in this game. It was a team effort with UNLV getting contributions from all players. Deville Smith made back-to-back baskets — the second after a crucial steal near midcourt — in the scoring rally, Bryce Dejean-Jones made two crucial free throws to seal the win, and Kevin Olekaibe calmly buried the game-winning 3-pointer. Even though most of the highlights came toward the end of the game, that kind of balance is crucial moving forward. The more scoring options, the more dangerous UNLV will be the rest of the season.
Olekaibe's smooth shooting touch: Kevin Olekaibe either runs really hot or super cold on his outside shots. He’s rarely been just plain average — make a few, miss a few. Today, he caught fire early in the second half, draining two crucial 3-pointers in helping UNLV start to chip away at a 12-point deficit. Then, toward the end of the game, he drained another triple to cut the Boise State lead to four points with 2:17 remaining. And, of course, his most-significant shot came with seconds left to give UNLV the win. He finished 5 of 9 on 3-pointers for a team-high 18 points.
Carlos Lopez-Sosa provides a spark: Carlos Lopez-Sosa has his limitations and can’t be counted on for big-time minutes. But the fifth-year post player is still a valuable substitute off the UNLV bench. He comes in for a few minutes each game and brings energy, allowing Khem Birch a breather and providing a spark with his relentless play on both ends of the court. He had a dunk in transition during UNLV’s second-half rally to even the score. In the first half, he made a 3-point play on a nifty move to the basket. He’s arguably UNLV’s most popular player with the fans, drawing the loudest cheers until the rally.
Quick look at the box score: Although the great ending will help disguise some of UNLV’s problems, they still need to be addressed. They trailed by 10 points at halftime for multiple reasons, especially falling into the trap of too much one-on-one play. UNLV had just three first-half assists. UNLV again allowed the opposition to have a good shooting night with Boise State making 49 percent. If UNLV didn’t rally, the talk would be about how UNLV failed to make defensive adjustments. Birch had 15 points and 15 rebounds for UNLV, Dejean-Jones had 11 points and Deville Smith finished with nine. Roscoe Smith, the nation’s leading rebounder, had his worst effort of the season with just two rebounds.
Up next: The schedule won’t get easier for the Rebels with a road game Wednesday at Colorado State (12-10, 4-6 Mountain West), which is better than its near-.500 record indicates. And UNLV typically struggles in high-altitude Fort Collins, Colo., meaning a hangover from today’s win would be tough to overcome.