Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 | 11:10 p.m.
The Rebels’ best all-around performance of the young season left them dripping sweat and gasping for air. Yet when they looked up at the scoreboard it wasn’t enough to counter the damage Arizona State’s Jahii Carson did while leading them on a fruitless chase all around Jerry Tarkanian Court.
“He killed us,” UNLV’s Khem Birch said after Carson led the Sun Devils to an 86-80 victory with 40 points.
Carson had almost free reign the entire night because that’s sort of the way UNLV coach Dave Rice wanted it. The Sun Devils (4-0) hit 28 3-pointers over their last two victories, and Rice figured the best way to keep them under their 91.3 points per game average was to limit the opportunities from deep.
That worked, to a degree, as Arizona State hit 5-for-20 behind the three-point line. However, many of those were open looks missed by Jonathan Gilling, who went 0-for-7 behind the line.
Still, that figure plus a pair of double-doubles from Birch and Roscoe Smith were the kind of things Rice was looking for. But that only works when Carson doesn’t have a career night with 16-of-25 shooting and seven assists in 39 minutes. Or when UNLV (2-2) once again flops at the free-throw line, barely getting over 50 percent.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Birch, who finished with 11 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks. “We did execute basically what we were supposed to do.”
Roscoe Smith spent some time searching for the best way to relay Carson’s performance to the crowd of media. After a few attempts, the most emotional player on the court kind of shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
“He’s just a good player man,” he said.
Roscoe Smith had 16 rebounds 21 minutes into the game and finished with 18 points and 21 boards. He’s now averaging 15.5 rebounds per game and looks like the team’s on-court leader even more than Bryce Dejean-Jones, whose one-handed dunk over 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski was the Rebels’ highlight of the game.
While Roscoe Smith and Birch were UNLV’s anchors, the starting back court shot a combined 15-for-47. That trio — Dejean-Jones, Kevin Olekaibe and Kendall Smith — played very well for stretches but missed a lot of jumpers in a game decided at the rim. Arizona State edged UNLV 54-48 on points in the paint.
Birch cut the Rebels’ deficit to one with 4:38 remaining. The next few possessions went like this: Carson made two free throws, Dejean-Jones missed a jumper and ASU’s Jermaine Marshall came back with a made jumper. Rice nearly called a timeout right then but decided to let the Rebels keep playing.
Olekaibe then pulled up for a long 3-point attempt that Marshall took right out of his hands and laid in at the other end. The Sun Devils went up by seven and UNLV never got closer than five.
“We got a little impatient late in the second half,” Rice said.
Though the Rebels pointed to the overall limited time they’ve all spent together, no one could blame youth. Rice only played eight guys, with Roscoe Smith logging a full 40 minutes and Birch close behind at 34. Kendall Smith was the only underclassmen to play a single minute, and although his man scored 40 the Rebels felt he played well overall.
“He’s only going to get better,” Birch said.
The Rebels appeared to play only one possession of zone defense. It came in the first half and Marshall immediately hit a 3-pointer for a few of his 20 points. UNLV came out of it and kept throwing Kendall Smith, Deville Smith and Jelan Kendrick at Carson mostly one at a time instead of risking leaving the outside shooters more open.
That decision may not have sunk UNLV had it sunk more free throws. Kendall Smith’s pair once the game was already decided pushed the Rebels to 15-of-29. That actually boosts their season percentage at the line from 50 percent to 50.5.
“It’s not a genie; we can’t wish for it,” said Roscoe Smith, who added the Rebels would keep practicing free throws and believing it would get better.
Flaws aside, UNLV did play very well at times. It led by four at halftime and by as much as seven in the second half.
The Rebels mostly rose to Arizona State’s level, but there wasn’t one thing that derailed them. It was defensive assignments, free throws and abandoning the post game in the final minutes, to mention a few.
“We got a glimpse of the toughness,” Roscoe Smith said. “We got a glimpse of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
UNLV has a week off before returning to the Thomas & Mack Center to face Illinois next Tuesday. There aren’t too many Jahii Carsons out there in college basketball, so that’s good news for UNLV. But in the time off the Rebels have to recognize and address the in-game mistakes that piled up in this game, and that starts from Rice on down.