rebels basketball:

Kendrick, Rebels’ front court carry UNLV past Radford

Jelan Kendrick scores 18 points on nine shots while Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith each have double-doubles in an 81-62 victory

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels Jelan Kendrick drives to the basket against Radford University Highlanders Ya Ya Anderson during the first game of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic at the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013.

UNLV Vs. Radford

UNLV Runnin' Rebel Khem Birch loses control of the ball after being fouled by Kion Brown during the first game of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic against the Radford University Highlanders at the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Jelan Kendrick was the last player out of the visitor’s locker room last Saturday at Southern Utah. Media lingered because Kendrick had just played probably the most complete game of his UNLV career, and it seemed like a good time for the usually loquacious junior forward to hold court.

But he was quiet. Kendrick downplayed his 12 points, three rebounds and three steals in 20 minutes. In his mind it wasn’t a breakthrough as much as the beginning of the inevitable. That continued tonight in the Thomas & Mack Center, where Kendrick led the Rebels with 18 points in an 81-62 victory against Radford.

“Jelan had his most complete game of the year,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.

For the second straight game, that’s true. After shifting back to coming off the bench, Kendrick shot 6-of-9 from the field, including two 3-pointers, 4-of-6 at the free-throw line and also had a couple assists and rebounds. All that in a season-high 31 minutes, and he “deserved every one of those minutes,” Rice said.

Kendrick has made a rather large shift with microphones in his face. He’s gone from the guy who said “national championship” nearly three times per minute in the summer to more measured responses like dismissing the idea he cares about coming off the bench versus starting.

“I just want to win,” Kendrick said.

He was a large reason this was a relatively easy night for the Rebels, as were big men Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch. Both guys registered double-doubles; 13 points and 12 rebounds for Smith and 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks for Birch.

Although Birch conceded that UNLV might meet its equal, “I don’t think there’s going to be a front court that’s better than us,” he said.

It’s hard to argue. They were extremely efficient with a rather limited number of shots — 6-for-16 — and also went 5-of-6 at the free-throw line. This was Smith’s sixth double-double and the fifth for Birch.

Despite the blocks, they weren’t great defensively, which is one of the only knocks on UNLV after this game. The Highlanders matched the Rebels with 36 points in the paint because they were able to consistently get deep position.

Birch said the Rebels probably overlooked Radford’s front court. That didn’t come back to bite them because the Highlanders’ guards couldn’t get anything going. The team shot 2-of-14 behind the 3-point line.

UNLV committed six turnovers in the first 10 minutes and only five the rest of the way. Once the Rebels stopped turning the ball over, the lead grew to 10 at halftime and 19 shortly after that.

It helped that the offense was shooting so efficiently, especially Kendrick, who didn’t miss a shot until there were nine minutes remaining. Another key for Kendrick was that he only committed one turnover. Over the past four games, he averaged 3.3 turnovers per game while playing fewer minutes than he did tonight.

If Southern Utah wasn’t a breakthrough, then this certainly felt like one. That was Rice’s message to the team after the game.

“I told them, ‘Jelan Kendrick epitomized what I want our program to be about,’” Rice said.

Kendrick, who came in averaging 6.9 points in about 22 minutes per game, took a very circuitous route to UNLV, and there will always be character questions as long as he’s in uniform.

The short version is that Kendrick, a McDonald’s All-American, started his career at Memphis but was kicked off the team before ever playing a game. He then went to Ole Miss before leaving near the end of his freshman season under bizarre circumstances. Last year he played at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, but he committed to UNLV after an on-campus visit before playing his first game there.

Rice said tonight that ever since his first meeting with Kendrick, the coach has believed Kendrick was ready to move forward and start fresh.

“Whatever all those people wrote and said about JK,” Rice said, “I don’t know that guy.”

That guy, at least the latest version of him, sat at a table in the postgame press room and again downplayed any major changes. The shots were bound to start falling, he said.

With three more games in the next five days, he’ll have more opportunities to find out if this type of game is the exception or his new rule. There’s always more to learn from games than practice, and Kendrick said the Rebels are eager to keep this rolling and unwrap their presents with some momentum.

“This is what everybody on our team was waiting for,” Kendrick said. “To get four quick games up under our belt and have a Merry Christmas, Santa Claus coming down everybody’s chimney and continue from there.”

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

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