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April 23, 2014

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

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Instant Analysis: This was a step in the right direction for UNLV basketball

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Khem Birch dunks over Utah State guard Jo Jo McGlaston during their game Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV vs. Utah State: Jan. 22, 2014

UNLV forward Khem Birch dunks over Utah State guard Jo Jo McGlaston during their game Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

Here are some observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 62-42 victory tonight against visiting Utah State.

What the game means: It’s a step in the right direction. Sure, Utah State was missing a few key pieces and forced to play some younger players, but that should take nothing away from the UNLV win. The Rebels went on a 10-0 scoring run in the final 3:08 of the first half to take the lead for good. They did what they needed to in the second half to hold the lead and won by 20 points — exactly what a superior-talented team should do. It was one play, however, that stood out on this night. With about eight minutes to play in the first half, Kevin Olekaibe delivered a perfect pass to Khem Birch in transition for a dunk. You’ll surely see replays of this one. The Rebels, at least for one play, resembled the team everyone assumed they’d have this season. They were high-flying, in command and fun to watch. Maybe it’s a sign of things to come. It doesn’t hurt to be optimistic, after all.

Daquan the difference maker: Daquan Cook is the Rebels’ third point guard, firmly behind Deville Smith and Kendall Smith in the rotation. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t have a team full of starters. While’s Cook stat line tonight of three points, two rebounds and no assists in eight minutes is nothing to write home about, his contributions go beyond the box score. Cook entered the game with Bryce Dejean-Jones in the locker room nursing a cut on his head and the Rebels trailing by three points. When he exited, UNLV had the lead. Cook is a pure point guard, someone who’d rather get his teammates involved than score. He averages just 7.8 minutes per game; some nights he doesn’t play. I’ve said it multiple times in this column space, and I’ll say it again: It wouldn’t hurt giving him more playing time. He’s earned it.

A look at the box score: UNLV’s Roscoe Smith had his 13th double-double of the season with 13 points and 14 rebounds. Deville Smith had a team-high 18 points for the Rebels, making 4 of 7 on 3-pointers. One game after taking 25 shots against San Diego State, Bryce Dejean-Jones went 2 of 6 for nine points. Neither team had a good night shooting the ball — UNLV made 38 percent of its shots; Utah State hit 31-percent. Utah State also was just 2 of 17 on 3-pointers. While Utah State was depleted, holding any team to 42 points is an accomplishment.

Up next: Bring on the Bulldogs. The Rebels on Saturday host Fresno State, playing a team they’ve already beat by double-digits this season. It should be another easy win, right? Yet, after multiple home defeats as a double-digit betting favorite times this season, nothing is a sure thing. And Fresno State beat UNLV last year at the Thomas & Mack Center in a loss I classified at the time as one of the worst home defeats in program history. That, of course, is up for debate after losing this year to UNR. While the UNLV season obviously hasn’t panned out the way they expected, there is room to be optimistic. The goal is still to be playing your best basketball in March and the schedule features some winnable games in the next two weeks. Fresno State at home, at San Jose State (Jan. 29) and home (Feb. 1) against Boise State should be wins. So should at Colorado State (Feb. 5) and at home against Wyoming (Feb. 8). That would put UNLV on a six-game winning streak when they play at Utah State Feb. 15.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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