For the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, an ugly win felt a whole lot better than a ugly loss.
Three days after sleepwalking through a 75-57 loss at Colorado State, Dave Rice’s squad grinded out a tough 48-46 victory over Wyoming on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Khem Birch scored a team-high 10 points, Deville Smith had nine points and four assists and Roscoe Smith, Kevin Olekaibe and Bryce Dejean-Jones all finished with eight points apiece to lead UNLV (16-8, 7-4), which won for the sixth time in its last eight games.
The victory, combined with Nevada’s 73-58 loss at No. 5 San Diego State, meant the Rebels moved back into tie for third place in the Mountain West with the Wolf Pack (12-12, 7-4).
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Okay, maybe it was the prettiest of victories – UNLV nearly blew a seven-point lead down the stretch and Wyoming shortened the game by running the shot clock down on each possession – but after Wednesday night’s debacle in Fort Collins the Rebels weren’t going to toss this one back.
“It was real ugly,” Olekaibe, who nailed a key 3-pointer, said with a smile.
“We went into halftime and it was kind of weird,” Rice said. “We normally don’t score 22 points in a half.”
The Rebels had to sweat it out at the end even after Deville Smith’s driving layup put them up by five, 48-43, with 1:21 left.
Wyoming cut the lead to 48-46 on Riley Grabau’s 3-pointer with 1:04 to go. Deville Smith then turned the ball over on the ensuing possession on a drive to the basket with 34 seconds remaining, giving the Cowboys a chance to either send the game into overtime or go for the win.
Wyoming ran the clock down and got it to star forward Larry Nance Jr. deep in the low post to the left of the basket. Nance, who finished with a game-high 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks despite grimacing throughout the contest thanks to a sore ankle, backed Birch down and then cut across the land and tossed up a short jump-hook that rolled around the edge of the rim and came out. Cowboy guard Josh Adams came up with the rebound in the ensuing scramble but was unable to get a shot off before the buzzer.
“A huge stop at the end,” Rice said. “I know Nance got a pretty good look but Khem Birch’s size and defensive ability altered that shot just a little bit and we were able to come away with a win.”
Rice said the Rebels expected the ball to go to Nance on the final play but were also concerned about allowing a potential game-winning 3-point try. So that meant Birch, the reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, had to handle the defensive assignment without any double-team help.
“We weren’t going to give up an open three,” Rice said. “We were going to leave it up to the conference defensive player of the year, and he should be it again this year too.”
The Rebels get a week to enjoy the hard-earned win before hitting the road to play Utah State on Feb. 15. Check out postgame press conference comments from Rice, Olekaibe and Roscoe Smith in the videos below: