UNLV basketball:

Rebels get in a zone in 26-point victory at Air Force

UNLV goes with a zone defense for 40 minutes and shoots the lights out in a 93-67 win that keeps it in sole possession of third place

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Bryce Dejean Jones gets back on defense after sinking a three-point shot against Colorado State during the first half of their Mountain West Conference game Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

With the way the Rebels played offense today at Clune Arena — dominant inside, outside and everywhere in between — their defense may not have mattered much. Or it may have been the catalyst that enabled them to hit 61.8 percent from the field, including an absurd 66.7 percent on 3-point attempts, in a 93-67 stomping at Air Force.

It all depends on how much stock you put into being able to simply run back to the same spot every time.

“The way we play defense, if we’re playing hard and playing together, it works against anyone that we play in our league,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Except Air Force.”

The Falcons’ Princeton-style offense, featuring a plethora of backdoor cuts and slip screens, has given UNLV fits in recent years. That includes Air Force’s seven-point victory at UNLV (19-10, 10-6) earlier this season.

So, after running several straight possessions of 2-3 zone defense Wednesday against Colorado State, Rice decided to keep it out there all 40 minutes today.

“We weren’t worrying about backdoors and flares,” Rice said. “It freed us up.”

Whether it was because of that decision or myriad other factors, the results were fantastic.

“I loved it,” said UNLV's Khem Birch, who had 15 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. “If a team isn’t a good shooting team, the fact you can rely on a zone defense is amazing.”

Birch was one of the biggest reasons for the change. Air Force, and a few other teams, has had success against UNLV by moving him out of the lane and then driving to the basket. However, in a zone he’s permanently planted right at the rim, where he can thwart every layup attempt.

That turned the Falcons (11-16, 5-11) into a jump-shooting team, and they’re not equipped to pull that off. Air Force shot 35.9 percent from the field and 31 percent beyond the arc.

Seven Rebels finished with double-digit scoring. Deville Smith scored 15; Bryce Dejean-Jones registered 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists; and Kendall Smith had 12 points in 15 minutes, his most points since Nov. 19.

Birch and Roscoe Smith combined to shoot 9-for-11 in a dominant inside performance. Kevin Olekaibe, who had 11 points and four assists, said Dejean-Jones got things going with his passes and Birch made everything work by controlling the paint and then making smart passes.

“That’s how we’ve got to play for the rest of these games,” Olekaibe said.

This is the fifth consecutive home loss for the Falcons, who are tied for ninth place in the Mountain West Conference. Although that certainly can’t be overlooked when judging UNLV’s performance, neither can how well the Rebels executed their game plan. They baited a poor 3-point shooting team into taking 29 of them and overpowered the Falcons at the other end, including a 45-25 rebounding advantage.

Even against other overmatched teams in recent years, UNLV doesn’t often play this efficiently. Especially on the road.

Birch said he was surprised at how well things went based on the Rebels’ history in altitude and specifically against Air Force’s zone defense. Coming into the game, UNLV ranked last in the league in 3-point shooting in conference games at 27.9 percent. Rice has said that he felt that would improve, although today was an extreme example of that.

“I don’t think that we’re a 67 percent 3-point shooting team,” Rice said, “but I also don’t believe we’re a 28 percent 3-point shooting team.”

That’s obviously going to come back to earth Wednesday when the Rebels host San Diego State. What will be more interesting to monitor is what UNLV does on defense, now that it has some repetitions, and some success, with a zone.

“I will always primarily be a man-to-man coach, but we will play some possessions of zone,” Rice said. “Our guys like it, and our guys have confidence in it.”

The only time the Rebels will run it for 40 minutes again, Rice said, is a third matchup with Air Force. Otherwise, it’s something UNLV will have in its arsenal to pull out and use off-and-on with its regular man-to-man.

“I think that could work out for us,” Olekaibe said.

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

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