Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 | 11:35 p.m.
The Rebels may not be a great basketball team, but they did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
In its first game since deciding to stay at a Las Vegas hotel the night before home games, UNLV tossed a defensive gem against Utah State in a 62-42 victory Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Aggies (12-6, 2-4) came in as the second-most efficient 3-point shooting team in the country and mustered only 2-for-17 against the refocused Rebels.
“It definitely helped us a lot,” junior Roscoe Smith said of staying at a hotel.
How much that hotel stay, which was likely not at a Holiday Inn Express, actually affected the outcome is debatable. What’s not up for discussion is how perfectly ugly the Rebels (12-7, 3-3) made this game.
Utah State was hitting better than 43 percent behind the three-point line coming in and couldn’t even do that inside the arc tonight. The Aggies’ shooters never got comfortable and even when they were open they couldn’t get anything to fall.
“When we’ve been good this year, it’s because we’ve been able to limit their three-point shooting percentage,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice.
The only positive Utah State had on offense was Jarred Shaw, who scored 12 points in the first half but finished with only 14. Once senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa started pushing him around more in the post and forcing him to go over his right shoulder Shaw never looked comfortable.
Rice went with some different lineups in the first half, including Kendall Smith at shooting guard alongside point guard Daquan Cook, and got enough from his variety for UNLV to go on a 10-2 run to end the first half up by 10.
“It was different guys making different contributions,” Rice said, “but it was the same mindset as in the Pit last week.”
The Rebels didn’t exactly play great offense but their defense, plus a huge rebounding advantage — 44 to 29 — was enough for a 20-point margin of victory. Deville Smith led the way with 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting and Roscoe Smith notched his 13th double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds.
Since it followed a 5-for-19 performance it’s tough to know what to expect from Deville Smith game to game, but when he’s dialed in it’s clear the Rebels play at a higher level.
“There’s no doubt about that,” Rice said.
Deville Smith said it took him awhile to get comfortable with his teammates to the point where he knew what they wanted out of him as a point guard and when it was best to shoot it himself. Rice had to nudge that mentality along, too, after watching Deville Smith take and make shots in practice that he wasn’t attempting in games.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you take those shots in the game?’ And I didn’t have an answer,” Deville Smith said.
Outside of Roscoe Smith and Deville Smith, UNLV shot 27.8 percent from the field. Freshman Christian Wood was 0-for-4 but made up for it with three blocks, including two on one possession that started a run out resulting in a Khem Birch one-handed slam.
On the night the Rebellion debuted Khem Kong, their biggest prop yet, its namesake struggled offensively — 2-for-8 — but Khem Birch filled the stat sheet elsewhere with seven rebounds, two blocks and two assists.
It’s difficult not to walk away from this game thinking how much more it would have meant had the Rebels not lost their two previous home games. Getting back to even isn’t the benchmark UNLV wanted to reach six games into Mountain West play, but the fact is there’s nothing to be done about the past. Consistency still escapes the Rebels and it might all season.
Beyond just the victory, the positive from this was that UNLV proved to itself it could win games in multiple ways. Earlier this season a poor shooting night may have affected the defensive end. Tonight a sub-40 percent effort didn’t do anything to detract from UNLV’s defense or rebounding.
Maybe credit goes to the hotel. More likely it belongs to the players for making a conscious decision to put forth a better effort than the home fans had seen in 2014.
Matching that intensity on Saturday against Fresno State is the next challenge. No matter where they stay the night before, good things will happen in every game if the Rebels play with this same concentration on defense.