Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 | 11:50 p.m.
In less than five minutes, UNLV’s lead evaporated from 12 to one and the Rebels were huddled together searching for an answer. It had been staring them in the face, the same way it often does at halftime or at some point in the final 20 minutes of these games, and once they found it they never looked back.
When the Rebels (18-10, 9-6) stop settling for jump shots and get the ball in the paint they’re able to turn one-point leads into eight-point wins, as they did tonight in a 78-70 victory against Colorado State at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“It’s perfect that we got the three-point lead on a post feed to Khem (Birch) and then we never looked back,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice.
Perfect because points in the paint were the reason the Rebels had their lead in the first place. They controlled the rebounding battle and built a 10-point halftime lead with 18 points in the paint and a 13-0 advantage in fast-break points.
Once UNLV started settling for 3-pointers — 1-for-13 in the second half, 7-of-28 for the game — Colorado State (15-14, 6-10) made its run despite its best player, Daniel Bejarano, watching from the bench in foul trouble. In his absence J.J. Avila (22 points) and Jon Octeus (17 points) pulled the Rams back into the game until the Rebels remembered to feed the beast.
It wasn’t even post touches as much as aggressive drives that righted the Rebels’ ship. They shot 63 percent on free throws for the game but were excellent there at the end, scoring the majority of their final points in the last 7 minutes on 10-for-11 shooting at the line.
“Once we found Khem,” said junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, “it started opening the game up for us.”
Dejean-Jones led UNLV with 19 points but more impressive were his nine rebounds. The Rebels grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and won the overall rebounding battle by 13.
“To outrebound a Larry Eustachy-coached team 48-35 is a big deal,” Rice said.
Rice said the way teams guard UNLV — zone looks, fronting the post, etc. — encourages a few extra 3-point attempts. However, they need to come more often after post touches instead of rushed looks early in the shot clock. Rice said he also thought some of the second-half attempts were the result of fatigue.
“Sometimes when you’re tired the easiest thing is to shoot it,” he said. “That doesn’t make it right.”
Those kinds of mistakes are always easier to stomach during a film session that follows a win. UNLV will also be able to break down a successful stretch of zone defense. It may have actually been the longest the Rebels have stayed in the zone, and part of the rationale was the fatigue.
More important was keeping Birch near the basket. With him moved away in their last meeting, the Rams ran a layup line.
Although he only registered two official blocks, Birch (eight points, nine rebounds) was a huge factor as Bejarano had at least five shots near the basket rim out as he attempted to get past the Rebels’ big man.
Rice paid his team a big compliment early in his postgame comments. He has a few key words for certain Mountain West foes, and the buzzword for CSU has always been tough. By using that term to describe his own team, Rice was complimenting their perseverance to finish off the Rams despite the near collapse.
UNLV’s prize for the victory was sole possession of third place. The Rebels now have a one-game lead on Boise State, Wyoming and UNR with three games remaining.
A top-five seed means UNLV would avoid the Wednesday opening round games in the Mountain West tournament, and the No. 3 seed would pit them against the winner of Wednesday’s nightcap.
“We can’t worry about what Boise’s doing or Wyoming’s doing,” Olekaibe said. “As long as we take care of our business on the court we’ll be fine.”
The Rebels’ payback tour continues Saturday at Air Force, which defeated UNLV by seven earlier this season. Getting the ball inside more often for the entire game would be a good place to start, as would shooting better than 1-for-13 from deep in the second half.
Of course, the Rebels have plenty of experience reminding themselves mid-game to feed it inside. And the outside shooting tonight could have been worse.
“I’m glad we made one though,” Rice joked. “You could look at it that way.”