Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 | 10:35 p.m.
Here are some observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 73-64 loss today against San Diego State.
What the game means: It’s easy to say the loss isn’t the end of the world for UNLV. And how its season was already a disappointment and how losing to the nation’s No. 10-ranked team was expected. You can also say that even if the Rebels would have won they would have been faced with the same uphill climb in next week’s league tournament. That is all 100 percent accurate. But it’s not necessarily the entire story. The Rebels missed a golden opportunity by blowing another second-half lead in their own building. It would have been their best win of the season, one of those signature victories to continue building momentum for the postseason and showing the team isn’t as bad as its double-digit loss record indicates. Instead, the more than 16,000 fans, a record crowd this season at the Thomas & Mack Center, saw firsthand what they had missed all season. An even game with 3:23 remaining turned into a nine-point loss. They again couldn’t finish. They again took bad shots. They again had a long scoring drought. Game over — season likely over, too.
What went wrong: UNLV had no solutions in breaking the San Diego State full-court press. The length of Winston Shepard and Dwayne Polee II seemed to bother the Rebels all game, forcing them into 12 first-half turnovers and giving the Aztecs numerous easy baskets. UNLV’s primary ball handlers of Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith combined for 10 turnovers for the game in what seemed like a recurring nightmare. Less than four minutes into play, coach Dave Rice called a timeout to plan against the press. But on the next play after the break, Dejean-Jones coughed up the ball again for more San Diego State points. That was part of an early 8-0 scoring run by San Diego State, which could have easily opened the flood gates. The Rebels were lucky it didn’t. In the first half, UNLV made its outside shots to hold a one-point halftime lead. In the second half, the Rebels made three of their last 15 shots over the game’s final 12 minutes, finally being overwhelmed by the better team.
Where would the Rebels be without Khem Birch: Birch had a team-high 16 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots, becoming a one-man show on the inside. If he doesn’t perform, UNLV loses by 20. Sound familiar? It’s been that way too many times this season with Birch as the Rebels’ most consistent player. He just couldn’t do it alone, especially with Roscoe Smith out nursing a concussion.
Farewell to the seniors: I’ve always defended Carlos-Lopez Sosa, arguing his hustle and determination out-weighed the poor production and constant fouling. The cheers he received during Senior Night festivities showed how popular he is with fans, which is paramount in defining his legacy. Sure, if you look at his stats — he scores 1.3 points in seven minutes per game — it’s easy to call his career a disappointment. While numbers are the easiest way to determine success or failure in sports, it’s not always the most accurate. Lopez has thrived in being a role player and providing a spark off the bench. He obviously would prefer to be a regular, but has made the best out of being regulated to limited minutes. The loud applause each time he was on the court speaks volumes — he was a good Rebel. ... The same is true for sharpshooter Kevin Olekaibe. He’s one UNLV’s leaders in minutes played and 3-pointers, which makes you wonder what the Rebels would have done if he didn’t transfer in for his final season. Olekaibe returned to his native Las Vegas after three seasons at Fresno State because his father was ill and in a hospice after multiple strokes. Playing for UNLV helped give his family a few moments of joy; he continued to produce even when his father got worse. His parents didn’t attend tonight’s pregame ceremony, but they were here in spirit. Olekaibe had “Dad” on his headband.
Up next: It’s now or never to start salvaging the season and grabbing momentum for next week’s Mountain West tournament. The Rebels play Saturday at UNR looking for their 20th win, which isn’t as big of an accomplishment as it used to be. Nearly 90 of the 300-plus Division teams have already won 20 games. Somehow, UNR beat UNLV earlier this season, which should be motivation enough. The season will still boil down to next week and whether or not they win three games in three days in the league tournament for an automatic NCAA berth. The Reno game will a great chance to get some momentum for next week. Maybe, just maybe they can finally start figuring it out. And, after Reno beat Boise State today, the Rebels need to beat Reno to grab the No. 3 seed for the tournament.