Gary Kazanjian / AP
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 | 4 p.m.
However, this play had nothing to do with junior guard’s game-high 24 points.
With the Rebels holding a slim five-point advantage against a resilient Fresno State squad and about 13 minutes to play, UNLV’s Khem Birch was fouled hard while grabbing one of his game-high 17 rebounds by Fresno State’s Cezar Guerrero .
In a physical game with frequent trash-talking by players on both sides, the always-aggressive Dejean-Jones went over to protest the foul with a few Fresno State players.
Within the blink of an eye, heated words between Dejean-Jones and Fresno State’s Marvelle Harris almost led to a pushing match, forcing both coaches to race on to the court to grab their players. Both players were issued a technical foul.
Using the momentum from Dejean-Jones standing up for his teammate, the Rebels went on a scoring run to extend their led to more than double-digits with about eight minutes remaining. Fittingly, both Birch and Dejean-Jones converted 3-point plays in the rally, giving the Rebels a seventh-straight win and helping them overcome two embarrassing defeats last season to Fresno State.
“Coach kept talking about how they punked us last year,” Birch said. “After the double technical, we had to step up after that. We had to win the game.”
Only time will tell how the season plays out for UNLV, but a victory today — the league opener and a rare early game on New Year’s Day — is clearly a step in the right direction. Forget about Dejean-Jones leading the Rebels (10-4, 1-0 Mountain West) in scoring for a second straight night, adding to his 19-point, seven-rebound, six-assist effort last week against Cal-State Fullerton.
What could wind up being more important is how his one play helped them further establish their identity. They were out-rebounded by three in the first half, but rolled up their sleeves in the second half to grab 12 more rebounds than Fresno State.
“It was a matter of trying to stay tough and stay together,” Dejean-Jones said.
Roscoe Smith, the nation’s leading rebounder, had 13 points and 12 rebounds to surge into the lead in another national category — he now has double-doubles in 10 of UNLV’s 14 games, the most double-doubles in the nation.
But Smith didn’t do it alone on the inside, picking up two quick fouls in the second half to be forced to the bench. Freshman Christian Wood, a lanky 6-foot-11 forward who spends more energy shooting 3-pointers than playing on the inside, had a breakthrough game. He dunked over two defenders in the first half, used his long reach for a tip-in in the second half and scored another basket on a nifty inside move in finishing with seven points.
Sure, Birch had 14 points and 17 rebounds, combining with Smith to force their will on the inside against another opponent. But this game, Wood needs to be mentioned in the conversation of the strong post-performance play.
“We just had the will to win,” Rice said. “We came in at halftime and said we have to rebound the ball better. I though the rebounding margin in the second half was the big difference in the game.”
The inside play proved to be paramount with the Rebels’ guards, especially point guards, struggling.
Deville Smith was clearly a step slower while battling a hamstring injury suffered last week, going scoreless with two assists and four turnovers in 21 minutes. Freshman Kendall Smith started and scored two points on 1 of 7 shooting in 18 minutes with two turnovers.
Making matters worse, UNLV couldn’t connect from the outside, making just 1 of 16 on 3-pointers. Kevin Olekaibe saved the Rebels from seeing their 3-pointer streak end, drilling a triple from the corner late in the first half to extend their streak to 902 straight games. Since the NCAA adopted the 3-point line in 1986-87, UNLV is the lone Division I team to make a 3-pointer in every game it has played.
But that one shot was only half of the story this game for Olekaibe, who transferred this summer to UNLV to be closer to his ailing father. In his return to Fresno State, the Las Vegas resident received a warm reception from the announced crowd of 5,968 fans.
“I knew I was coming back and it was going to be a tough game,” Olekaibe said. “We came out strong and tried to keep up the intensity. I knew my teammates had my back.”
Yes, just like Dejean-Jones sticking up for Birch to spark the UNLV win, this UNLV team appears to have each others’ backs.
“It was one of those things where it wasn’t going to escalate,” Rice said of the technical. “It was a physical play. It was a situation with two teams in conference that are physical and play hard. It’s good competition.”