Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 | 11:07 p.m.
Bryce Dejean-Jones had been booed less than a minute earlier, and while it’s hard to defend home fans turning on their own player, it’s not like they were yelling just to hear themselves scream.
With one minute on the clock and UNLV trailing by two in overtime, Dejean-Jones caught a pass and lifted into a shot from nearly the same spot where he had just missed badly. Of course, there were several spots on the court that Dejean-Jones used for a ill-advised shots in the final six minutes of regulation.
But in the moment, absolutely none of that mattered to him or his teammates. All that mattered was the next one, and Dejean-Jones swished it through for the go-ahead points in UNLV’s 75-73 overtime victory against Fresno State at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“That takes some guts because no one felt worse than Bryce for the three or four tough shots he missed before that,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
Dejean-Jones finished 3-of-12 from the field and 3-for-8 at the free-throw line but also collected seven assists to no turnovers and four rebounds. On the decisive possession, junior point guard Deville Smith never had any second thoughts about getting the ball into Dejean-Jones’ hands.
“My job was to get it in and make them double team,” Smith said. “Then just pass it to Bryce because he was open.”
Junior forward Khem Birch, who finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, helped preserve the victory with a block at the rim in the final 10 seconds against Fresno State’s Cezar Guerrero. Free throws finished things out from there.
Guerrero, who nearly won the game at the end of regulation with a 3-point attempt, caused a lot of problems for UNLV from the perimeter. He hit two 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the second half to help extend Fresno State’s lead to seven.
Rice countered with a defensive adjustment geared, at least in part, at forcing Guerrero to do something inside the arc.
“Let’s make him put it on the floor and finish,” Rice said he told his team.
Guerrero finished 1-for-8 inside the arc and 5-for-12 behind it. Similarly, Fresno State’s Paul Watson, who finished with 17 points, was better from long distance than short.
It was Watson’s shooting — 4-for-8 on 3-point attempts — that really propelled Rice to change the defense from the way the Rebels started the game.
UNLV (13-7, 4-3) opened in switch-three, meaning the three guards would switch off screens but the bigs stayed on their man. That was OK in a previous meeting at Fresno State because Watson missed all three of his 3-point attempts, but when he got hot this time, it became clear that Roscoe Smith couldn’t stay on him and be successful.
“Roscoe had a hard time with that in the first half,” said Rice, who added he felt Smith improved toward the end.
For a while, Rice went with Jelan Kendrick at the four in a smaller lineup. That produced some good results until Kendrick fouled out with just under six minutes remaining in regulation.
That was when Dejean-Jones came back into the game and shot 1-for-5, most of them well-guarded jumpers, down the stretch. His shot was blocked in the final 30 seconds of a tie game, setting up Guerrero’s 3-point attempt and the Bulldogs’ near put-back at the end of regulation.
Dejean-Jones’ 3-pointer was UNLV’s only made field goal in overtime. The Rebels hit 6-of-8 free throws in the extra session after hitting 57.9 percent during regulation.
Despite its record, Fresno State (8-13, 1-7) lived up to Rice’s praise as the hardest-working team in the Mountain West. Despite a distinct size disadvantage, the Bulldogs dominated the first-half rebounding battle and actually won overall, 47-44. That included 21 offensive rebounds.
“What troubled me (at halftime) was the fact that we’d given up 10 offensive rebounds,” Rice said. “That’s all about being tougher.”
The relief for UNLV is that it found a way to win, something the team hasn’t been able to count on in the Mack this season.
“After the game, Coach said that six weeks ago we would have lost this game,” Birch said, “and I agree.”
The victory is the most important thing to the Rebels, who also feel good about pulling out a close game. This makes them 3-5 this season in games decided by seven points or less.
Still, to go from the dominant defensive performance of Wednesday to the open shooters and bad transition defense tonight is alarming as far as progress is concerned. The Rebels don’t have to dwell on this one because they are the victors, but they would do well to learn from it.