UNLV basketball:

Rebels can’t afford to let up against struggling Fresno State

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guards Kevin Olekaibe and Daquan Cook smile while walking off the court after their game against Utah State Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won 62-42.

It’s understandable that the second meeting wouldn’t hold the same meaning as the first. Once UNLV senior guard Kevin Olekaibe played his former teammates and coaches in Fresno, Calif., on New Year’s Day, it stripped away the weirdness of it all and left only a basketball game. Well, mostly.

“It’s still different, you know, but this is my team here,” Olekaibe said of the Rebels. “I’m kind of past it.”

Olekaibe still talks to Fresno State senior guard Tyler Johnson, but he hasn’t kept up with the Bulldogs’ season. Informed that Fresno State is 1-6 in Mountain West play, including four consecutive losses, Olekaibe shrugged his shoulders. They may be struggling, he said, but they’re going to come in ready to play.

That’s a lesson the Rebels have been repeating over and over heading into Saturday’s 7 p.m. home game, which will air on CBS Sports Network. Not that they should need too many reminders, but the guy most responsible for Fresno State’s lone win out of 15 attempts in the Thomas & Mack Center is on their side now if they need advice.

Last year the Bulldogs were 4-11 in Mountain West play heading into the regular-season finale at the Mack. That group had already defeated UNLV in the Save Mart Center and completed the sweep with a stunning and relatively easy 61-52 victory.

“Coach (Rodney) Terry told us, ‘Don’t give up,’ ” Olekaibe said. “ ‘Come in and hit them in the mouth, and keep punching.’ ”

This time around, it’s UNLV (12-7, 3-3) that won the first meeting, though UNLV coach Dave Rice said he doesn’t always see that as an advantage. Rice said the loser of the first meeting often plays a little harder in an attempt to even the score.

“We can’t allow that to be that way,” Rice said.

After winning his first 15 home conference games as the Rebels’ coach, Rice lost three straight starting with last year’s defeat to Fresno State. The losses this year — to Air Force and UNR — have tempered the good feelings following Wednesday’s 62-42 home victory against Utah State.

A win in just one of those games would have the Rebels in prime position to compete for second place, and two wins would have them tied for second, waiting for another crack at No. 7 San Diego State. Instead, UNLV is smack dab in the middle, tied with Boise State and Colorado State for fifth.

“It’s the easiest thing in life to look back and think ‘What if?’ ” Rice said. “We just have to learn from what we did and know that we’ve played well, for the most part, the last three games.”

Fresno State’s month has been a tough one, with only a home victory against Air Force to hang its hat on. Most of the Bulldogs’ six league losses haven’t been close going by the score, including a 10-point loss Wednesday in double overtime against UNR.

That one hurt more than most as it denied Terry the chance to share with his team proof that they’re getting better.

“We’ve got to see something for it,” Terry told the Fresno Bee. “We have to see the fruits of our labor — a win.”

To pull that off, the Bulldogs could sure use Olekaibe, who had 13 points and eight assists in last year’s meeting at the Mack. But he’s on the other side now, where Olekaibe will try to help the Rebels avoid another derailing home loss.

Rebels in good health

Bryce Dejean-Jones and Carlos Lopez-Sosa are both expected to play after suffering injuries in Wednesday's victory against Utah State.

Dejean-Jones had to have a couple of staples put in the back of his head to close up a wound but actually came back and finished the game against the Aggies. He was wearing a headband during Friday's practice, although it doesn't actually cover the wound.

Lopez-Sosa's X-Rays from Thursday were negative and he has a deep bone bruise on his left elbow. He missed practice Thursday but was a full participant on Friday and Rice said Lopez-Sosa would likely be available. Freshman Demetris Morant, who sprained his ankle Monday, also practiced but his status is less certain.

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

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