Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 | 8:50 p.m.
Here are some observations for the UNLV basketball team’s 48-46 victory today against Wyoming.
What the game means: The sky is no longer falling for the Rebels. Winning a closely contested game against Wyoming is a great bounce-back win after a lackluster performance earlier in the week at Colorado State. Sure, the Rebels didn’t earn many style points, falling into a trap of playing at Wyoming’s slow pace. But, at this stage of the season and after losing by 18 points earlier in the week, any win is a step in the right direction. This was a must-improve game for the Rebels — much different than must-win. The effort and productivity was so poor against Colorado State, the Rebels needed a quick fix. They got that tonight by giving a maximum effort, including a great job defensively on Wyoming’s last possession to win the game. Don’t be concerned with the final score or other stats. The win is what’s most important in this game. An ugly win sure beats the alternative.
Is Deville Smith the Rebels’ most valuable player?: Deville Smith isn’t UNLV’s most talented player, but he’s definitely been its most valuable player. He’s the Rebels’ best outside shooter and can also score by dribbling the ball to the basket. He made a crucial layup with 1:21 remaining today to give UNLV a five-point lead, essentially sealing the win. Last week in the comeback against Boise State, it was Smith’s two late baskets that were the difference in the late rally. And in the win at New Mexico, which is UNLV’s lone win of significance this season, he made 6 of 9 shots for 17 points. Smith had nine points and four assists against Wyoming — which accounted for about one-third of the Rebels’ offense. As he runs, so do the Rebels. He seems to play better and with more confidence each game. That’s a good sign for a UNLV team that has been inconsistent all season.
Some notes on defense: First the good: The Rebels limited Wyoming to 46 points and 28-percent shooting in the second half, and twice forced turnovers on shot-clock violations. They also limited them to 4 of 12 on 3-pointers. Now the bad: Two of those 3-pointers came with less than two minutes remaining to keep Wyoming within striking distance. And now the ugly: Wyoming players had no problem getting to the rim, easily beating UNLV defenders on the perimeter. And with Khem Birch in foul trouble, some of the easy trips into the lane resulted in layups or dunks for Wyoming. It shouldn’t be that easy.
A look at the stat sheet: This box score isn’t easy on the eye. Birch was the lone UNLV scorer in double figures, getting 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Roscoe Smith had eight points and nine rebounds, Bryce Dejean-Jones had eight points on 4 of 12 shooting and Kevin Olekaibe buried a pair of 3-pointers to finish with eight points. UNLV had just five bench points. The teams combined for nine free throw attempts.
Up next: Practice makes perfect, right? The Rebels, who won’t play again until Feb. 15 at Utah State, will test that theory in the next seven days. With a rare midweek Mountain West bye, the Rebels can hit the practice floor to prepare for the final stretch of the season. Forget about what’s transpired in the initial 24 games of the season. Focus on the remaining eight regular-season games and the postseason. Set the lofty goal of running the table — you know, winning those eight remaining games and continuing the hot play into the league tournament. College basketball is about peaking at the end of the season. This is UNLV’s chance to start fresh and turn what’s been an underachieving season into something memorable. Maybe that’s being too optimistic. But, then again, maybe the Rebels will surprise us.