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April 20, 2014

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

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Instant Analysis: Tough to find much wrong with UNLV’s performance after win against Santa Clara

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Deville Smith is defended by Santa Clara guard Jared Brownridge during their Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic game Sunday, Dec. 2013, at the Orleans Arena.

Las Vegas Classic: UNLV vs. Santa Clara

UNLV forward Roscoe Smith pulls down a rebound over Santa Clara guard Brandon Clark during their Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic game Sunday, Dec. 2013, at the Orleans Arena. Launch slideshow »

Here are some observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 92-71 victory today against Santa Clara at the Orleans Arena.

What the game means: UNLV took care of a fourth straight opponent in convincing fashion, fighting off early resistance from Santa Clara before posting another lopsided win. All four opponents — the Rebels (7-4) also beat Southern Utah, Radford and Sacred Heart — are nothing to write home about, but that shouldn’t diminish the improved play. Remember, earlier this season they struggled against Nebraska-Omaha, which is a comparable opponent to Santa Clara. UNLV made 63-percent of its shots and were able to find much success in transition. For one of the first times this season, the Runnin’ Rebels did just that with multiple easy baskets in transition. Don’t get excited just yet — it’s important to remember the opponent. Santa Clara (6-6) had no answers from Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch on the inside, and the talent disparity was heavily slanted in UNLV’s favor. Bottom line, the Rebels are clearly feeling better about themselves. They scored 92 points, after all.

Deville Smith making the most of his court time: Point guard Deville Smith is easily the Rebels’ most improved player, scoring 21 points with five assists and four rebounds in finally impacting the UNLV attack. He was slowed early this season with a knee injury against UC Santa Barbara, and while he didn’t miss any games, he was clearly a step slower. He lost his starting job to freshman Kendall Smith, but has firmly established himself as the backup — if not the starter again.

Everyone played well: It’s tough to find much negative to say after this one.

Five UNLV players reached double-figures, the Rebels out-rebounded Santa Clara and played better in every statistical category. They made 50-percent of their 3-pointers and were an acceptable 17 of 25 from the free throw line. Roscoe Smith had 15 points and seven rebounds, Khem Birch scored 14 and had eight rebounds and Jelan Kendrick made 6 of 7 shots in scoring 13 points. The one question we’ll soon have an answer to is why Birch, the Rebels’ best player, didn’t start. Taylor Bern, my colleague, will have that answer in his coverage.

Rebels fans noticeably missing: Three years ago when the Rebels played a neutral-court game at the Orleans Arena, tickets were impossible to come by and UNLV supporters packed the 9,500-seat facility cheering from start to finish to impact the game. That was far from the case today. My generous estimate is about 1,200 scarlet and gray supporters were in attendance, which is totally unacceptable. Ok, that game three seasons ago was against top-ranked North Carolina, and the undefeated Rebels had the town’s attention in Dave Rice’s first season. While today’s game wasn’t part of the season ticket package and played on a Sunday a few days before Christmas when locals are pinching their pennies — or saving for a UNLV football bowl trip — the lack of support is still confusing. (The game against UNC was also not part of the package). Las Vegas only supports winning teams and the Rebels have struggled early this season, which could partially explain the empty seats. Or maybe its because this is a lazy Sunday. Whatever the case, games are sure more enjoyable when the arena isn’t empty.

Up next: UNLV’s final dress rehearsal before Mountain West play is Monday at the Orleans Arena against Mississippi State, meaning it’s a must-win game to continue building momentum from the winning streak of the past two weeks. For as bad as the Rebels played in the initial games of the season, they could enter league play New Year’s Day at Fresno State on a five-game winning streak. More important, they seem to be playing with more confidence. With a lineup full of some new pieces, the Rebels are meshing together better each game. We’ll see if that continues against Mississippi State. Correction: The Rebels Dec. 28 host Cal-State Fullerton, which is the last tune-up before league play. Neither way, they have momentum on their side and must continue the progression.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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