Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 | 11:20 p.m.
Deonte Burton gathered his momentum and leaped as high as he could, the 6-foot-1 guard’s right arm sailing above the west rim in the Thomas & Mack Center. By the time UNR’s senior point guard landed safely on Jerry Tarkanian Court, UNLV fans were heading for the exits, and Burton had the highlight of his career.
That dunk exorcised a lot of demons for Burton and the Wolf Pack (8-8, 3-0) while simultaneously opening up a whole new set of wounds for UNLV (10-6, 1-2). Burton had to reach far behind his head to finish the alley-oop slam that gave UNR a 13-point lead and helped the Wolf Pack defeat UNLV for the first time since 2005.
“He threw me a terrible pass but I made up for it just going off of adrenaline and momentum,” Burton said after a 75-72 victory that wasn’t nearly that close. "We finally got one against them on their home floor. It feels tremendous.”
Burton didn’t quite match the 40 points from Arizona State’s Jahii Carson in this building earlier this season, but his 29 points did enough damage. And UTEP transfer Michael Perez added 14 second-half points, including a couple of backdoor cuts that easily beat UNLV freshman Kendall Smith for dunks.
“This one is going to be remembered for a while,” Perez said.
Remembered differently in Las Vegas than up north, to be certain. UNLV never did enough to contain UNR’s best player, and the Rebels could never make up for it because they did things like shoot 4-of-24 to start the second half.
The Rebels’ loss Saturday to Air Force stung. It was only the second home conference loss for coach Dave Rice in just more than two seasons and dealt a serious blow to any hope UNLV had for the NCAA Tournament, outside of winning the conference tournament title. This loss all but sealed that fate, and the Rebels know it.
“We needed to win tonight,” Rice said, “and we didn’t get it done.”
The reasons for the loss are many and will be discussed ad nauseam by the fans who, like the team, have a week to stew on this two-game losing streak before back-to-back trips to New Mexico and San Diego State starting Wednesday. There may be no better place to start than how excited Burton was to see Kendall Smith guarding him to start the game.
“I was surprised about it,” Burton said. “We just have to exploit the mismatches, and that’s what we did.”
Asked if he was pleasantly surprised, Burton grinned.
Kevin Olekaibe and Bryce Dejean-Jones also spent time guarding UNR’s best player, but it was Kendall Smith’s job first. Rice even commended Kendall Smith for doing a good job on Burton for the first two-thirds of the first half. However, Burton scored eight points in the first six minutes and then sat for five minutes because he had two fouls.
And what did Burton do when he came back in the game? He saved UNR, according to Rice.
The Rebels led by 10 when Burton reentered with four and a half minutes remaining. Over the final minutes, the Rebels increased that lead to 11 before Burton went on a personal 7-0 run and helped set up Jerry Evans’ dunk at the buzzer that cut the deficit to two.
“I thought that was really the difference in the game,” Rice said. “We had an 11-point lead and those three baskets, that’s what great players do.”
UNR kept the momentum rolling in the second half with a set play where Perez went backdoor on Kendall Smith and slammed it. Those bookend dunks were part of a 13-0 run that put the Wolf Pack up for good.
Burton’s highlight dunk came with about five minutes left, and he buried a 3-pointer minutes later to finish off an excellent performance. Meanwhile, the Rebels, trailing by 10 with 1:50 remaining, fouled only once in the next minute and a half while precious seconds ticked off. Rice said it was because they wanted to set up trapping pressure to get the ball out of the hands of Burton, who appeared to spend a lot of that time dribbling with little interference.
The Rebels can’t blame free throws or turnovers — they hit 80 percent and committed only seven. They have to face the reality that they have only themselves to blame.
Though he later said there’s no finger-pointing going on, Roscoe Smith suggested some younger players weren’t up to the task tonight.
“Our effort level isn’t matching from certain guys,” he said.
Roscoe Smith finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season. Khem Birch had 12 points and seven rebounds, but together they shot only 6-of-17.
Rice said that out of 55 half-court possessions, the Rebels got the ball in the paint, either by passes or drives, 42 times. He was happy with that number but not in the players' ability to finish once they got there.
Defense was the primary issue, though. For the second straight game, the Rebels gave up easy baskets at the rim and allowed UNR to shoot 45 percent from the floor compared to their own 35.
“It was all negative stuff,” Birch said of the postgame locker room.
Perhaps a better indicator of the issues going on behind the scenes was Jelan Kendrick’s absence from this game. The junior forward was “significantly late” to practice on Tuesday, Rice said, and his punishment was to sit out the first half. Rice said he then decided during the game to keep Kendrick seated for the entire game.
This is at least the fifth incident of a Rebel being late to a team meeting, weight-lifting session or practice. Birch sat out the team’s first official practice because he was late, Kendall Smith came off the bench against Cal-State Fullerton and Bryce Dejean-Jones twice came off the bench in nonconference play and still played starters’ minutes after showing up tardy to other functions.
Taken separately, they’re minor errors. But together, they add up to just another problem the Rebels must deal with. There’s also Birch’s assertion that the practice schedule and free-throw sessions in their free time are wearing the Rebels down.
“Everyone’s tired emotionally and physically,” Birch said.
On Jan. 8, that’s about the last thing anyone around the program wants to hear. These back-to-back losses were at home against the teams picked to finish ninth (UNR) and 10th in the preseason Mountain West poll. So what does that mean for UNLV’s upcoming road trips to the preseason favorite and 13th-ranked San Diego State?
“I’m not going to determine anything until the next two road games,” Birch said. “You never know, we could pull two upsets next week.”
Unlikely, though not impossible. But what will Birch determine if those games go against UNLV, dropping it to 1-4 in league play? Will the Rebels have any more answers than they did tonight?
“I try to stay positive as much as I can,” Roscoe Smith said.
That’s getting a lot harder for fans to do, too, and excuses aren’t helping. The Rebels have one week to either make a statement or fade from the picture entirely. And that’s the optimistic view.
The feeling of those who booed and turned their backs on the Rebels with five minutes left was probably that Burton already made that statement for them.