UNLV basketball:

Depleted Rebels prep for regular season with ugly victory against Adams State

Absent its two best players, UNLV has plenty to work on after a sloppy game full of turnovers and missed free throws

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV coach Dave Rice reacts to a call during the Rebels exhibition game against Adams State Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV vs. Adams State: Exhibition

UNLV guard Kendall Smith drives to the basket against Adams State during the Rebels second exhibition game Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

UNLV coach Dave Rice turned away from the court, clasped his hands together behind his head and closed his eyes. He needed a respite from what was taking place on the court, and no one watching from the stands or online could blame him.

It was often sloppy and mostly ugly, but the good news for Rice and the Rebels is they made enough plays to hold off Adams State for a 72-67 victory tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center. After going 1-1 in its exhibition games, UNLV opens the regular season at home Friday against Portland State.

“We understand it starts for real now,” Rice said.

Senior guard Kevin Olekaibe, who was officially cleared to play immediately earlier today, led the way with 17 points on 5-for-17 shooting. Freshman Kendall Smith scored 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting in his debut and Roscoe Smith finished with seven points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two blocks.

The Rebels’ two best players — junior Bryce Dejean-Jones and Khem Birch — both watched the game from the bench. Dejean-Jones is out for an undetermined amount of time with a strained hamstring and Birch is expected to return from his ankle and toe injuries for the opener. Their absence was noticeable all night.

“We desperately need those guys to be a part of what we’re doing,” Rice said.

Without them the Rebels had to go deep down the bench, and then they had to go even deeper because of foul trouble. Two Rebels — Carlos Lopez-Sosa and Jamal Aytes — fouled out while Roscoe Smith was whistled for four. That’s going to be a common problem as teams adapt to the new NCAA rules that require fouls for defenders being too physical.

“This is how it’s going to be,” Rice said. “As long as it remains consistent, and I’m sure that it will, then we’re just going to have to adjust to it.”

The rule changes, including fouls for using an arm bar in a defender’s back or making contact with both hands, are designed to clean up and open up the game in the wake of the lowest-scoring season since 1952. Considering how aggressive Rice demands his players to play in practice, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t be able to switch that off immediately to meet a new higher standard of how much space to give the offense.

“You get stuck in between not wanting to play too lackadaisical and not trying to be too physical, which is a hard adjustment,” said junior Jelan Kendrick, who scored eight points on 3-for-10 shooting.

The constant whistles played a large role in the general ugliness of the game. So did UNLV’s 12-for-26 shooting at the free-throw line and 4-for-15 behind the three-point line.

The Rebels actually benefited from the increased foul calls because Adams State was whistled for two more and UNLV attempted nine more free throws. But for the second straight game they didn’t take advantage from the stripe. In two exhibition games the Rebels made exactly 50 percent of their free-throw attempts.

“If we just make a reasonable amount of free throws we win that game probably going away,” Rice said.

The Rebels also could have escaped easily by handling the ball better. They took a nine-point lead early in the second half and three turnovers later the game was tied. With less than two minutes left UNLV led by 10, yet the final margin was five in part because the Rebels gave the ball away again.

The turnovers were spread out evenly through the roster so there was no one player to point at. Deville Smith had the most (three) to go along with a team-leading six assists, but everyone who played more than a minute committed at least one turnover except for Kendall Smith. The Rebels also were outrebounded by the Grizzlies, who got a huge night from center Julian Scott with 27 points and 11 rebounds.

The list of improvements UNLV must make is understandably long considering all the new faces, the date on the calendar and the fact that no team has yet adjusted to how fouls will be called. The Rebels will start trying to build something Friday night and if the product is going to be something Rice won’t need to shield his eyes from, it sure would help to have a full roster.

“Hopefully we have everybody on the court,” Olekaibe said, “so we can continue to get better as a group.”

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

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