Eric Draper / Associated Press
Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014 | 10:40 p.m.
That Alex Kirk didn’t mean it as an insult mattered not to UNLV.
With a week to stew in the wake of back-to-back home losses, UNLV already had every reason to come out fired up tonight in the Pit. New Mexico’s center calling the Rebels an AAU team just pushed them — especially Bryce Dejean-Jones — over the edge and into the right state of mind to register a huge 76-73 victory against the Lobos.
“When a guy calls your team an AAU team, it has to be a war,” said junior forward Khem Birch. “Regardless if it’s intentional or not, you can’t let someone say that.”
Dejean-Jones played the most determined game of his season if not his entire UNLV career. The back-to-back second-half possessions where he finished an emphatic dunk and then dove over a sideline table to save a steal that led to a 3-pointer will be replayed for years and set the tone for UNLV (11-6, 2-2) to finally win a close game.
“A comment like that definitely doesn’t go well with me,” Dejean-Jones said. “We’re a college basketball team.”
The quote that they’re talking about made the rounds on Tuesday.
“UNLV overall, just looking at the raw talent they have on the scouting report, it’s pretty scary,” Kirk told the Albuquerque Journal. “They’re not really having the recent success coming into conference, but that’s a hell of an AAU team.”
Kirk probably thought he was complimenting UNLV on having such an excellent collection of talent. The Rebels took it to mean that they don’t know how to play and set out determined to prove otherwise in a crucial game for their season.
“Bryce took that comment to heart,” Birch said.
After an early run of easy baskets for New Mexico (12-4, 3-1), UNLV asserted itself and built a 16-point lead less than 10 minutes into the game. That lead shrunk to two with 4:15 still left in the half, but the key was that the Lobos never took the lead. In fact, after Roscoe Smith put UNLV ahead by one with 15:32 left in the first half, the Lobos never led again and the game wasn’t even tied once.
“Psychologically for our team, with some of the leads that we’ve lost, I thought it was huge for us to go into halftime with a lead,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
The Lobos cut a four-point deficit to one almost immediately in the second half, but then Dejean-Jones answered with that dunk and steal. Every time New Mexico tried to get over the hump, UNLV had an answer.
Deville Smith finished with 17 points, including many of those lead-saving baskets, and Birch was stellar with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
The surprise down the stretch was Rice’s decision to keep Carlos Lopez-Sosa in the game over Roscoe Smith, who picked up his fourth foul with 4:53 remaining. Lopez-Sosa came in averaging only 6.1 minutes per game and hadn’t played more than nine in a game since Nov. 15, but Rice played him 19 against New Mexico and gave him the non-existent game ball afterward.
“He was a huge part of the victory,” Rice said.
UNLV guarded Kirk (12 points, 11 rebounds) and Cameron Bairstow mostly one-on-one in the post. It may not have mattered what the Rebels threw at Bairstow, who displayed quite an offensive arsenal on his way to 27 points, six rebounds and three assists, but Rice said he liked Lopez-Sosa’s size to guard both Lobo big men in the game’s crucial minutes.
“It’s a hard matchup for Roscoe,” Rice said.
Bairstow missed a short baseline jumper that could have put New Mexico ahead in the final 35 seconds. Dejean-Jones countered with two free throws to finish off his 23-point performance, and New Mexico missed all three of its desperation 3-point attempts in the final eight seconds.
In the arena it felt like if the Lobos ever took a lead, even by just one point, they may never give it up. Several would-be go-ahead shots rimmed out or came tantalizingly close to dropping, but the Rebels also deserve a lot of credit for all the answers they came up with at the other end.
Following all the negativity around the team over the past week, that ability to finally finish a game was a welcome sign for UNLV fans and the players who have heard the complaints.
“If you have our back we’ve got your back,” Birch said. “I feel like the fans kind of doubt us a little bit but we’ve got your back.”
This doesn’t erase those two defeats, but it certainly loosens everyone’s shoulders a bit. Because regardless of the outcome, Rice said he was happy that the team competed in a way it didn’t in the second half against UNR. And based on practice he could see it coming.
“Bryce has been that way since we lost to Reno,” Rice said. “… We had some guys new to the program who were disappointed and down and it was guys like Bryce and Roscoe, who bring energy every day in practice, who kept those guys up and helped us get better.”
Things don’t get easier with Saturday’s trip to No. 10 San Diego State. But the Rebels’ chartered flight home tonight is a happy one because they took a lot of negativity and a perceived slight and turned it into a big victory.
“We looked to come out here and play instead of talk,” Dejean-Jones said.
Including all of his celebrations Dejean-Jones did plenty of both. The important thing was he made sure he had the last word.