Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 | 9:45 p.m.
Most of the people who left the Thomas & Mack Center early, the ones who were frantically running back by the time they reached their cars or will claim they never left at all, made their exit with 3:29 on the clock and Boise State leading UNLV by 11.
While they made their slow, resigned march into a world where the Rebels were going to lose their sixth home game of the season, UNLV coach Dave Rice calmly explained to his team how they would erase a double-digit deficit for the second time in the half and go on to win their fourth straight game. Then they did exactly that.
In just more than a minute, Khem Birch hit four free throws and Kevin Olekaibe made a 3-pointer that cut the deficit to four. That was the appetizer for his dagger with 19 seconds left that put UNLV ahead for good in an improbable 73-69 victory against Boise State.
“I can’t lie,” Birch said, “I’m surprised we won. Coach predicted the whole thing.”
Birch, who finished with 15 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks, had two free throws coming when the Rebels huddled up for the final media timeout with 3:29 left and another loss likely. Rice told his team that after Birch made two free throws, they were going to get a stop, then come down and score. Then they were going to do it again, and again, and by the time they were done, everyone else would believe exactly what Rice did.
Over that final stretch, UNLV (15-7, 6-3) went 4-for-4 from the field, 2-for-2 from 3 and 7-for-8 at the free-throw line with three steals. With any chance at relevancy in the Mountain West race on the line, the Rebels played probably their best and definitely their most important basketball of the season.
Even with all that went right, Deville Smith was beaten for a layup by Canyon Springs High grad Mikey Thompson that put the Broncos (15-7, 5-4) back ahead with 38 seconds left. All the work UNLV had done could have been undone by one final mental lapse, except that anyone who witnessed the comeback had to believe there was one more miracle within the Rebels.
“We never gave up,” Rice said. “We get beat back door and yet we still have the fortitude, the toughness, the perseverance to make plays to win.”
The blown assignment would fit right in with Deville Smith’s first-half game film. He was one of several Rebels, including Bryce Dejean-Jones, who looked like they were sleep-walking through a first half that found UNLV down 10 at halftime.
Rice said he didn’t talk about one single offensive or defensive adjustment during the break. They needed to make some tweaks, but that wasn’t the problem. It was the lack of energy, the absence of life the Rebels had over the past few weeks. Rice said he grabbed a chair and simply talked.
“The team that I’ve watched win four of their last five and three in a row, that’s not the team I’m seeing out there,” Rice told them. “We’ve got to do better, and we are better. This is not acceptable, and we know it.”
Some players, including Olekaibe, added to it.
“I told everybody that we needed to play our game. Stop being timid,” Olekaibe said.
Dejean-Jones started the second half on the bench in Rice’s attempt to get him to snap out of a funk. Dejean-Jones entered the game with 15:20 left and UNLV down nine. Three and a half minutes later, the game was tied.
Three and a half minutes after that, the deficit was back to 11.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Rebels’ comeback is that they had to do it twice.
“Sometimes you spend so much energy coming back, and then the team makes the run and you don’t have enough to finish the game,” Rice said. “And yet we did.”
Dejean-Jones ended up with 11 points on five shot attempts plus a few assists, and Deville Smith made what Rice called the biggest play of the game with about 1:20 remaining.
Deville Smith was eyeing a steal at midcourt for most of the game. He even got close a couple of times, but as drama goes it’s best that he saved the clean pick for a go-ahead layup with 1:17 on the clock.
Deville Smith’s defensive mistake allowed the Broncos to jump back ahead, but he was also the one running the play Rice called out of a timeout to find an open Olekaibe.
After a couple of hand-offs, Deville Smith went around a ball screen set at the right wing and charged into the lane. Olekaibe was posted in the right corner and drifted out to the wing as Deville Smith made his drive. Once Olekaibe’s defender slouched off the shooter, Deville Smith tossed the kick-out for his only assist of the game and Olekaibe completed a 4-for-5 3-point shooting half.
The shot looked good the whole way, and there’s no doubt where the moment ranks in Olekaibe’s career.
“Number one. It was always my dream to do it in front of my home team and home fans,” Olekaibe said. “Deville made a great pass, and I knew as soon as I caught it, it was going up and it was going in.”
A defensive stop — one of many the Rebels had to make to pull this one off — and a couple of free throws set off the surreal celebration.
This was probably the program’s best comeback since Feb. 12, 2005, when the Rebels erased a 10-point deficit against San Diego State in the final 29 seconds and then won in overtime. UNLV won its next three games and five out of six after that one.
The Rebels are hoping for a similar string of success here as they try to build on a four-game winning streak. Despite the damnation of this season swirling around outside the program, they’re proving themselves worthy of attention down to the final buzzer.
“Hopefully next time they’ll stay to see a finish like that,” Olekaibe said of the fans.
No one who stuck around will soon forget it.