Rebels basketball:

Despite bad news off the court, Olekaibe comes up big in UNLV victory

His father’s health has taken a bad turn, but the senior is able to help the Rebels with season-high 21 points in 73-62 win at Utah State

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John Zsiray / Associated Press

UNLV’s Roscoe Smith, right, blocks a shot by Utah State’s Spencer Butterfield (21) during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Logan, Utah.

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UNLV's Kevin Olekaibe (3) dunks the ball over Utah State's Preston Medlin during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Logan, Utah.

The news Friday night felt like a punch to the gut for UNLV senior Kevin Olekaibe. This afternoon, he dealt with it the only way he could, letting out his emotions in a superb performance for a season-high 21 points in the Rebels’ 73-62 upset victory at Utah State.

UNLV pulled away from the home team at the Smith Spectrum with perhaps the best second-half performance of its season. Olekaibe was a huge part of that, scoring 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including 3-for-4 on 3-point attempts.

After the game, the Rebels (17-8, 8-4) could be heard yelling and cheering in the visitors’ locker room. It may have had something to do with UNLV coach Dave Rice’s dedication of the game to Olekaibe and his ailing father.

“His dad took a significant turn for the worse last night,” Rice said.

Olekaibe’s mother called him Friday night to let him know that his father had been rushed from hospice care to the hospital. Benson Olekaibe’s failing health is the reason Kevin, a Cimarron-Memorial High grad, transferred back home and walked on to the Rebels’ program in the first place.

“It was very tough for me last night,” Olekaibe said. “It was hard to even talk and say what was going on. It’s just hard to even think about it.”

No one would have blamed Olekaibe had his first-half performance — three missed 3-pointers — continued the rest of the game. Instead he not only contributed to the victory but also was a catalyst for it, along with Bryce Dejean-Jones (17 points) and Khem Birch (11 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high nine blocks).

Birch had nine points in the first half but didn’t need to do much offensively the rest of the way. His defense was plenty good to make up for it, although he was thinking as much about the block he didn’t get as the nine he did.

“I’m trying to get a triple-double,” Birch said. “I know that sounds selfish, but I’m trying to get 10 blocks and break Joel Anthony’s record.”

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UNLV's Khem Birch, left, blocks a shot by Utah State's Kyle Davis during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Logan, Utah.

Birch now has 103 blocks for the season. That leaves him six behind Anthony and nine behind Keon Clark for UNLV’s single-season record. His 171 career blocks are already good for second place in program history behind Dalron Johnson (194).

“It’s an MVP-type performance from him today,” Rice said. “He was sensational.”

The Rebels’ first half couldn’t have been much worse other than the score. They often pulled up in transition for jumpers, hitting 2-for-11 on 3s, and gave up 13 offensive rebounds for 12 second-chance points. All that, yet UNLV trailed by only two.

“We thought we were in a good spot,” Rice said.

The Rebels stopped settling for shots and took the ball to the rim in transition, scoring 10 fast-break points after having none in the first half. That’s where Dejean-Jones did most of his damage, and it helped set up the open outside looks for Olekaibe.

Dejean-Jones’ kick-out to Olekaibe for a 3 with 3:14 remaining was the dagger because it came right after Utah State had fought so hard to cut the deficit to five. After that, UNLV’s lead ballooned to 14.

Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith combined for nine assists and one turnover in the second half while the team shot 69.2 percent from the field. The Rebels denied Utah State coach Stew Morrill his 600th career victory and instead handed him only his 26th home loss in his 16th season with the Aggies (15-10, 5-8).

UNLV Defeats Utah State

Utah State coach Stew Morrill, left, talks with Jarred Shaw, who walks off the court during an NCAA college basketball game against UNLV, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Logan, Utah. Launch slideshow »

The Smith Spectrum crowd was tame — the afternoon start and three-day weekend didn’t help — but all the empty seats may have made it easier for the Rebels to hear the individual insults tossed their way. The players, particularly Olekaibe and Birch, interacted with the crowd far more than usual, with Birch earning a technical foul in the final seconds for multiple waves to the student section.

“It’s part of the game,” Birch said. “Sometimes you get in the heat of the moment.”

No one could blame Olekaibe for his "throggles" or a tongue wag. His worries started again off the court, so for his 33 minutes on the court Olekaibe wanted to just play loose and free.

“He was able to clear his mind and focus on what was going on between the lines,” Rice said.

UNLV’s victory sets up a huge home game Wednesday against New Mexico (19-5, 10-2). Win and the Rebels are alive in the battle for second place in the Mountain West Conference with a small chance for first.

That’s what they’ll be thinking about when the time comes. Right now, the Rebels are thinking about Olekaibe and hoping for something that a road victory, as impressive as it was, can’t solve.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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