Rebels basketball:

UNLV makes the decisive plays to fend off Omaha in 73-70 victory

All night the Rebels relied on Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch, who combined for 28 points, 32 rebounds and 11 blocks

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Roscoe Smith grabs a rebound from Omaha forward Matt Hagerbaumer, left, and guard Justin Simmons during their game Friday, Nov. 15, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Smith finished with 22 rebounds and 19 points and UNLV won the game 73-70.

UNLV vs. Omaha

Omaha guard C.J. Carter and UNLV guard Kendall Smith chase a loose ball during their game Friday, Nov. 15, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

It’s easy to yell and get excited on defense during the final seconds of a two-point game. That UNLV’s Roscoe Smith probably wasn’t any louder on that play than he was while barking in the game’s opening minutes is an indication that the junior forward succeeded in his pregame goal.

“I definitely wanted them to feel my presence,” said Smith, who finished with 17 points and 22 rebounds.

Smith trailed Omaha’s CJ Carter on the game’s decisive play, yelling that he was about to block the guard’s shot. Khem Birch took care of it first, swatting his eighth shot of the game to help UNLV hold on for a 73-70 victory against Omaha (2-2) tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center.

After Birch’s block the Rebels hit one free throw, and once Carter’s last-second 3-point attempt rimmed out the 12,638 fans in attendance let out cheers of relief. UNLV was this close to a losing streak only three games into the season. Instead the Rebels (2-1) get a little confidence boost heading into Tuesday’s home game against Arizona State.

“We’re trying to learn how to play along with the other teams,” said junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones. “How to adjust to what they’re doing and how to keep doing what we’re trying to do.”

Dejean-Jones put his hamstring injury in the past on an excellent baseline dunk in the first half. Over the final 20 minutes he asserted himself even more, scoring 15 points down the stretch. He finished with 19 points and eight rebounds.

With the game tied at 70 and the clock ticking under 30 seconds, UNLV coach Dave Rice called for Dejean-Jones to run the clock down and then work off a high ball screen.

“I wanted to put the ball in our best perimeter player’s hands,” Rice said.

Dejean-Jones got a decent look at a pull-up jumper that rimmed out, but Birch was there to clean it up and put UNLV up for good. Birch finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and those eight blocks.

Birch and Smith came up with seemingly every critical rebound or basket when UNLV needed a jolt. They were also two of the biggest reasons the Rebels didn’t get too down on themselves after last Tuesday’s 21-point loss.

Instead UNLV led by nine at halftime and committed three more turnovers in the first four minutes of the second half. After that the Rebels calmed down, although their shooting cooled off.

The Mavericks hung around because of their own improved shooting and the Rebels’ continued struggles at the free-throw line. UNLV went 10-of-17 at the line in the second half, though it was 5-for-6 in the final six minutes.

Omaha guards Carter and Devin Patterson combined for 30 points on 28 shot attempts. Rice was pleased with that number, though he acknowledged the Rebels’ perimeter defense wasn’t nearly good enough at keeping those guys from getting into the lane.

Their penetration was the main reason Birch and Smith finished with four fouls each. Had one or both of them fouled out with a couple of minutes to play, things could have turned out very differently for UNLV.

“We’re going to get our guys in significant foul trouble if we don’t guard out there better,” Rice said.

Birch went to the bench because of his fourth foul with 8:31 remaining. Rice put him back in with 4:36 left, telling him to play carefully because he’s “more important than a foul.” Birch heeded that advice until Omaha’s final drive, when he sold out for the block with Smith yelling behind him.

It wasn’t a foul because Birch’s wingspan allows him to make those types of plays without hitting the guards. That’s the safety net he provides, though one the Rebels would admittedly prefer to rely on a little less.

Arizona State guard Jahii Carson is a souped-up version of Omaha’s guards, meaning he may spend half the game in the lane if UNLV’s perimeter guards don’t improve in the next four days.

Roscoe Smith doesn’t spend much time out there defensively, but alongside Dejean-Jones he views himself as one of UNLV’s primary leaders. He knows the younger players need to see someone setting an example, no matter what position they play.

“Not just say I’m a leader but to see I’m a leader on and off the court,” Smith said. “To know that I’m protecting them on offense and defense, that gives them a lot of confidence.”

Smith doesn’t want to be the only one yelling from the time the ball gets tipped to the very end. His goal, day by day, is to get every Rebel to make their opponents feel their presence.

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

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