unlv basketball:

UNLV’s Rice after 21-point loss: ‘We’ll continue to see the zone until we play better against it’

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV fans head for the exits as UC Santa Barbara increases its lead Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UC Santa Barbara won 86-65.

UNLV vs. UC Santa Barbara: Nov. 12, 2013

UNLV coach Dave Rice buries his head in his hands as UC Santa Barbara pulls away for a 86-65 upset Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

When the UNLV basketball team brings the ball up the court Friday against Nebraska-Omaha, there will be little suspense as to what defense the Rebels will be facing.

That’s especially true after their 86-65 loss tonight to visiting UC Santa Barbara — a defeat so ugly that most fans at the Thomas & Mack Center left with 10 minutes remaining and the Rebels trailing by 24 points. The ones who stayed booed to show their disappointment.

The Rebels couldn’t crack UC Santa Barbara’s zone defense, shooting just 36 percent and struggling to find a rhythm offensively.

This was UNLV’s fourth game of the season, including two exhibition contests. Each game the Rebels have faced a zone defense. And each game they struggled attacking it.

“We’ll continue to see the zone until we play better against it. I have no doubt,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.

The frustration of failing to beat the zone took its toll on the players in more than just trying to score. They became so distracted, they often surrendered easy and uncontested shots on defense.

UNLV trailed just 21-20 with 5:39 to play in the first half. That’s when Santa Barbara won the game, closing on a 24-9 scoring run for a 16-point halftime lead. The Gauchos’ Kyle Boswell made a trio of 3-pointers during the stretch — he was virtually wide open on two of the attempts.

“Boswell came out and made two shots where we lost him,” Rice said. “We made some mistakes on defensive assignments. That’s a huge part of the game. If they make tough, contested shots that’s one thing. But we messed up on a couple of coverages. We’ll watch on film and do better. But that is unacceptable.”

“If we go into halftime with a single-digit deficit, then it’s a different ballgame,” Rice continued.

Instead, climbing out of a 16-point hole was an impossible task. The Rebels forced the issue early in the second half, settling for some long-range 3-point attempts instead of working the ball around to break the zone.

Senior Kevin Olekaibe had a team-high 15 points for the Rebels, becoming the “designated shooter” of sorts in attacking the zone and making 5 of 11 on his 3-pointers. The rest of the team, however, went 3 of 13 from deep.

“It’s just playing our game,” Olekaibe said. “We have been playing this game since we were little. We shouldn’t let playing against a zone affect us.”

The locker room was described as being silent afterward. The players feel as if they let each other down.

“Obviously, it’s a very, very difficult loss,” Rice said. “Santa Barbara played well. We played very, very poorly. We got beat in every aspect of the game. It’s very disheartening; very disappointing.”

If they don’t make changes in the next 48 hours of practice, they’ll be dealing with similar disappointment Friday. Nebraska-Omaha narrowly lost to Iowa in its season opener and is a quality opponent, and the Rebels don’t appear any closer to figuring out how to attack the zone.

It’s the same problem from last season — see the NCAA Tournament loss to Cal — and something that will hinder UNLV all season. Well, until they figure out the zone.

“We have to do a better job and we have to do it quickly,” Rice said.

Rice classified the performance as pathetic. Still, he found some bight spots in the performance of a few. Freshman Jamal Aytes made an impact on the inside off the bench, scoring 10 points in 19 minutes, and freshman Kendall Smith went 5 of 6 for 13 points in 20 minutes.

Roscoe Smith had a team-high 12 rebounds and continues to be one of the team’s leaders. However, he played just four minutes in the first half after picking up three quick fouls. In a game of multiple things not bouncing UNLV’s way, losing one of its top players to fouls didn’t help.

Fortunately, it’s still mid-November and just the second regular-season game. There is much more basketball left to be played.

After all, the team is a work in progress and growing pains were expected. Just probably not this painful.

“We are a new team. We have a lot of new faces out there,” Aytes said. “But we are committed to working hard every day.”

Rice didn’t have to elaborate much on Nebraska-Omaha. He knows winning the next game starts with his players.

“Right now, it is about figuring out UNLV,” he said. “We have to figure out our team. We have to grow up quickly.”

Click to enlarge photo

UC Santa Barbara forward Alan Williams falls on UNLV guard Deville Smith's ankle during their game Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UC Santa Barbara won the game 86-65.

Bryce Dejean-Jones returns

Bryce Dejean-Jones made his season debut after missing the opener with a hamstring injury, scoring five points on 1 of 5 shooting in 16 minutes. Rice said he didn’t want to risk putting him back in the game late in the second half.

Also, Deville Smith played just 18 minutes while nursing an ankle injury. Rice also took caution with his playing time late.

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

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