Rebels basketball:

UNLV freshman takes advantage of increased role in blowout road victory

Rebels forward Christian Wood is trending upward in the eyes of his coaches after a solid outing in UNLV’s 73-51 win at Southern Utah

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Asher Swan / The Spectrum & Daily News

UNLV’s Jelan Kendrick steals the ball from Southern Utah’s Juwan Major during their game Saturday, Dec. 14, in Cedar City, Utah.

UNLV vs. Southern Utah

UNLV's Khem Birch swats the ball away from Southern Utah's Jaren Jeffery during their game Saturday Dec. 14, 2013, in Cedar City, Utah. Launch slideshow »

There’s a reason UNLV didn’t worry too much about the instant ramifications of freshman Jamal Aytes transferring to BYU this week. Or of senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa not being able to make the trip to Saturday’s game at Southern Utah because of an illness.

That reason is freshman Christian Wood, who took advantage of 18 minutes played to register nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, seven rebounds and two blocks. All of this either set or tied career highs and his emergence was one of many bright spots in a 73-51 victory.

“We don’t have a team full of shooters,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said, “and to have a guy like that come off the bench to stretch the defense is a big deal for us.”

Listed at 6-foot-10 and a generous 210 pounds, Wood hit two 3-pointers in the final 3 minutes of the first half to help UNLV turn an 8-point lead into 17. Southern Utah (1-6) never got closer than 14 in the second half as UNLV (4-4) cruised most of the way.

Wood is not without his faults, particularly on the defensive end, but it was partly his emergence as the preferred forward off the bench that made Aytes decide to transfer to BYU. After playing only a total of 12 minutes over UNLV’s first five games, Wood has logged at least 14 in each of the past three.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity,” said Wood, who played at Findlay Prep under current UNLV assistant Todd Simon.

For the second straight game, UNLV’s leading scorer, Bryce Dejean-Jones, came off the bench. At Arizona it was because Dejean-Jones was a few minutes late to a team meeting. This time, Rice said, the junior guard didn’t violate any team rules, but the coach wasn’t satisfied with Dejean-Jones’ role as a leader over the past week of practices.

“I hold him to a higher standard,” Rice said. “It’s my way of sending a message to him that I need more from you.”

Dejean-Jones still ended up playing 30 minutes, so the goal wasn’t to keep him off the court a significant amount. Just at the beginning of each half, when it’s more likely to get his attention.

Dejean-Jones didn’t seem surprised by Rice’s decision. In practice, Dejean-Jones and co-captain Roscoe Smith, who had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, may be subjected to more scrutiny than the other players. They both know that’s part of the deal, and Dejean-Jones said he understands he needs to be more vocal, needs to show up earlier on a regular basis and needs to hold himself and teammates more accountable for their actions.

“I’m ready for that challenge,” Dejean-Jones said. “That’s what (Rice has) put on the table and that’s what I’m going to go with.”

Dejean-Jones scored 11 points and led the guards with six rebounds. That was a point of emphasis coming into the game and UNLV’s backcourt responded well, with Kevin Olekaibe (four rebounds) and Deville Smith (three) helping out on the glass.

Deville Smith played 19 minutes, the most he’s been out there since the last time he was the starting point guard against UC Santa Barbara. At Arizona, it was sophomore Daquan Cook getting the majority of the minutes at backup point guard, but against Southern Utah, Cook barely got off the bench while Deville Smith had eight points and four steals.

“He’s playing more like the Deville that we watched during the recruiting process,” Rice said.

This game probably doesn’t provide any more clarity at the backup point guard position. In fact, it clouds the scenario, as Rice said he was very impressed with the way Deville Smith practiced over the past week.

Moving forward there won’t be nearly as much practice time for Rice to evaluate the hot hands, so it will be interesting to see how he manages the rotation. After playing only two games over the past two weeks, the Rebels will play four in a six-day span starting with Wednesday’s home game against Radford (6-2).

While things will continue to fluctuate at the guard spots, Wood is attempting to bring some more stability to the frontcourt rotation. Rice speaks highly of him and is giving Wood enough playing time to prove himself, which means this could be a huge stretch of games for a guy the Rebels would like to count on when conference play starts.

“If I keep playing how I’m playing hopefully good things will happen,” Wood said.

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

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