Instant Analysis: UNLV impressively answers Colorado State’s surge

Christian Wood continues making strides; Bryce Dejean-Jones deserves credit

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Bryce Dejean Jones gets back on defense after sinking a three-point shot against Colorado State during the first half of their Mountain West Conference game Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV vs. Colorado State: Feb. 26, 2014

UNLV guard Bryce Dejean Jones reacts after a play during their Mountain West Conference game against Colorado State Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won 78-70. Launch slideshow »

The dread carried through the air with seven minutes remaining in UNLV’s 78-70 victory over Colorado State Wednesday night.

The Rebels might blow another one, read the body language of the sparse crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center. In a game UNLV controlled from the opening tip, Colorado State had gone on a 13-3 run to make the score 62-61.

A television timeout conveniently followed. Here came Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy’s chance to out-maneuver UNLV counterpart Dave Rice and escape with a victory.

Or not. Rice was the one who calmed his team, substituted in the right lineup and eventually breathed easy.

So much for momentum. The Rebels went on a 9-0 run with Bryce Dejean-Jones leading the way and closed the game the way they started — exceptionally.

Check below for some observations from an entertaining UNLV win.

What it means: UNLV avoids adding another dubious record to this season’s list of them. The Rebels will not lose three in a row for the first time in Rice’s tenure. Well, not unless they turn back into the Fumblin’ Rebels for these final three regular-season games. UNLV also kept pace for the Mountain West Conference tournament’s No. 3 seed and left open the possibility of beating every conference foe at least once this season. Colorado State handed UNLV its most lopsided Mountain West loss in a 75-57 victory in Fort Collins but UNLV earned revenge. It’s got a chance to do the same against Air Force, San Diego State and UNR over the next 11 days.

Wood Watch: There’s a reason why everything Christian Wood does down the stretch of this season is monitored under a microscope. With this year, for all intents and purposes, lost, it’s more fun looking toward the future. A future that the freshman forward is going to play a major role in. The Findlay Prep graduate is proving more than worthy. For the third straight game, Wood was a bright spot.

He made his impact felt immediately upon checking in early the first half with a couple of rebounds before getting on track offensively just in time for UNLV to take its biggest lead of the game. He had a putback dunk and a three-pointer from the wing in a 30-second span that put UNLV ahead 33-20. Rice later showed faith in Wood by checking him in after Colorado State cut the lead to one-point late in the fourth quarter.

Wood rewarded Rice big time. He had three rebounds in the next minute as the Rebels pulled away. Wood finished with six points and eight rebounds. Just as important, he made a couple of hustle plays and played great defense that didn’t show up in the box score.

Hey, the Rebels remembered to run: Colorado State came out intending to push the pace against UNLV. That was a mistake. The Rebels’ 10-point lead at halftime could be entirely credited to their transition prowess. They had a 13-0 advantage in fast-break points and looked fluid getting up and down the floor. Unfortunately, the memories of success must have dried up in their heads after halftime. UNLV perplexingly slowed down the tempo in the second half, enabling Colorado State’s comeback bid. It’s too late in the season for a team to drastically change its approach, but anyone who’s watched the Rebels closely after the last couple of weeks must believe it’s in their best interest to speed it up a bit.

Quick look at the box score: Feels like Dejean-Jones takes more criticism after poor performances than he does praise after strong ones. So let me be the first to say that Dejean-Jones played extremely well Wednesday night. His 6-for-15 shooting night belies how effective the Rebels’ leading scorer was against the Rams. He had 19 points, nine rebounds and two assists — pushing and leading UNLV when it needed it. Kevin Olekaibe was the second leading scorer with a relatively quiet 15 points on 6-for-14 shooting.

The second best player against Colorado State, though? Might be time to take back that demand for a recount from the 2010 McDonald’s All-American Game. Jelan Kendrick reminded why he was once so highly touted with his best performance in a conference game. The Atlanta native made his first four field-goal attempts and wound up with 11 points. When the shots stopped falling, Kendrick remained aggressive and recorded two steals, two rebounds, two assists and a block.

UNLV dominated the rebounding with a 48-35 edge. Free throws stayed a problem as the Rebels missed six of their first eight before salvaging a little for a 17-for-27 tally from the line.

Up next: Once upon a time, UNLV’s annual trip to Air Force — where it plays at 1 Saturday afternoon — felt like a certain win. Not anymore. Rice’s teams have struggled at Clune Arena, losing by 15 points last season a year after edging out an overtime victory. Additionally, it’s hard to forget the Rebels’ no-show at the Mack last month when the Falcons beat them 75-68 as a 14-point underdog. With a home date against San Diego State and a trek to UNR still on the slate, the game with Air Force looks like the easiest remaining. But with this team, don’t count on it.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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