rebels basketball:

Deville Smith keeps Rebels rolling forward with stellar performance

The junior guard scores 21 with 5 assists in UNLV’s 92-71 win against Santa Clara. On Monday UNLV meets Mississippi State at 7:30 p.m.

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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 »

Considering the other recent breakthroughs, it only makes sense that the UNLV basketball team’s leading scorer in its highest-scoring game of the season would be another newcomer starting to find his way.

“I’m so amped up to go out there and play right now,” junior guard Deville Smith said after UNLV’s 92-71 victory against Santa Clara (6-6) tonight at Orleans Arena.

The win advances the Rebels (7-4) to meet Mississippi State (9-2), where Deville Smith started his career, at at 7:30 p.m. Monday for the Las Vegas Classic title. The game will air on CBS Sports Network.

Smith’s team-leading 21 points probably deserve first mention, though his five assists were arguably more impressive. They both worked in conjunction with his defense over a 29-minute outing that also included four rebounds and three steals.

“I do whatever it takes on the defensive end and I let the offense take care of itself,” he said.

He was part of a UNLV bench that outscored the starters, though that stat is misleading once you scan the names. UNLV coach Dave Rice said juniors Bryce Dejean-Jones and Khem Birch were five minutes late for the team bus, so they came off the bench.

“Just can’t be late for the team bus,” Rice said. “We’re playing for a championship of the Las Vegas Classic.”

Both guys finished in double-digit scoring, part of a group of five Rebels to reach that plateau. Roscoe Smith (15 points, seven rebounds) and Jelan Kendrick (13 points on 6-of-7 shooting) also got there.

Kendrick was the first Rebel to show signs of a breakout at the start of this four-game winning streak at Southern Utah. Then he got even better against Radford.

At the same time, freshman Christian Wood has started to emerge in the front court. Wood’s play has been so good that he earned the starting spot in place of Birch and finished with sixe points and five rebounds in 15 minutes.

Fellow freshman Kendall Smith had the first setback of his young career with four turnovers, two fouls and no assists in 10 minutes. Thanks to Deville Smith it didn’t matter.

UNLV led by nine at halftime and started to create more distance with about 12 minutes remaining. The Rebels shot 60.7 percent from the field for the game, including 7-of-14 behind the three-point line. Deville Smith was 4-for-4 from deep in the first half.

“That’s the guy that we went to watch and we wanted to come in here to be a big part of our program,” Rice said.

These recent breakthroughs have cleared things up as far as the rotation goes. Deville Smith is the clear backup point guard and showed signs of being able to play his way back into the starting role he lost with a knee injury against UC Santa Barbara. Wood is the first guy off the bench — assuming everyone makes it to the bus on time — and creates a matchup nightmare for opponents because of his length and range.

And Kendrick is doing even more to earn the coaches’ trust. While presumed team leaders Dejean-Jones and Birch were getting slapped on the wrist, Kendrick kept his head down and had his third really solid game out of the last four.

“He stabilizes our team,” Rice said of Kendrick. “We don’t have a natural leader on this team. … He probably is the guy who has stepped up and done a great job of that for us.”

Rice added that Roscoe Smith has also filled that role for UNLV, even as his rebounding average dips dangerously close to only second in the country.

Of the three guys who have stepped up for the Rebels in recent games, Deville Smith is probably guaranteed the least moving forward. Wood and Kendrick possess more unique skill sets than Deville Smith, whose defense is improving but must rely on getting additional playing time because of a hot start.

If this game was any indication, though, those games could become a little more frequent, starting with the title game against Mississippi State. Deville Smith left the Bulldogs program after his freshman season following a coaching change but said he still knows pretty much everyone on the team.

He’ll catch up with them, too, but not until he tries to match his breakthrough game a mere 24 hours later.

“I’ll talk to them after the game,” Deville Smith said. “Right now we’re focused on getting this win.”

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

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