Rebels ring in Mountain West play with key road win

While over 300,000 people paid thousands of dollars to come to Las Vegas to celebrate the start of 2014, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels rang in the New Year at Fresno of all places.

Without the distractions of numerous mega parties, celebrities like Bruno Mars and Britney Spears performing in town or a fancy fireworks show viewed by millions around the world, Dave Rice’s squad still found a way to celebrate, knocking off old nemesis Fresno State, 75-62, in its Mountain West opener at Save Mart Center on Wednesday afternoon.

Guard Bryce Dejean-Jones scored a career-high 24 points – including five straight during one key stretch late in the second half to help break the game open – and also had six rebounds and three assists as the Rebels (10-4, 1-0) extended their win streak to seven straight games.

UNLV was swept by the Bulldogs last year in Mountain West play so maybe the conference actually did the Rebels a favor by scheduling it for an incredibly poorly-timed noon road game on New Year’s Day. After all, there were a lot fewer distractions to deal with, and the announced crowd of 5,968 came dressed mainly as empty seats.

“We came out really fired up for this game,” Dejean-Jones said. “We really wanted it and we came out here and got it.”

The contest was physical and even got a little chippy early in the second half when Dejean-Jones and Fresno State guard Marvelle Harris, who finished with a game-high 25 points, both received technical fouls following a brief skirmish that started when UNLV forward Khem Birch and Bulldog Cezar Guerrero crashed to the floor during a tie-up.

“It was pushing, shoving, it was a real intense game,” Dejean-Jones said. “The guys, we stayed in it and kept our minds focused on what we needed to do and that was get a win.”

Birch, despite playing with a sore elbow, once again dominated the paint, finishing with 14 points, a career-high-tying 17 rebounds and four blocked shots. It was his seventh double-double of the season and 10th of his career.

“Khem was limited in practice on Monday but maybe he should hurt his elbow more often,” Rice joked. “Fourteen points and 17 rebounds, he was an absolute man out there, but he’s been a man all season long.”

Forward Roscoe Smith had his NCAA-leading 10th double-double of the season with 13 points and 12 rebounds while ex-Bulldog Kevin Olekaibe finished with 13 points in his Fresno return and had one very big 3-pointer.

UNLV finished a dismal 1-of-16 from 3-point range with Olekaibe (1-of-7) sinking the only trey late in the first half. That extended the school’s coveted NCAA Division I record streak of consecutive games with a 3-pointer to 889, or every game the Runnin’ Rebels have played since the rule was adopted by the NCAA in 1986-87.

“I think the most relevant number is 1-0 in the conference,” Rice said. “To get a road win, and to do it at noon on New Year’s Day … I thought it was a tremendous win for us.”

The Rebels return to action on Saturday night against Air Force (7-5, 1-0), a 73-72 upset winner over Utah State (10-3, 0-1), at 7 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center.

NOTES: Deville Smith, who left UNLV’s 83-64 win over Cal State Fullerton on Dec. 28 with a right hamstring injury, played 21 minutes but was 0-for-3 from the floor, had two assists and four turnovers. He and starting point guard Kendall Smith combined for two points, three assists and six turnovers. Rice hinted that sophomore Daquan Cook could get Deville Smith’s minutes against Air Force if the injury continues to nag him. “Was very close to playing Daquan in the second half, and if Deville can’t go on Saturday, then we’ll go with Kendall and Daquan,” Rice said. “That’s the luxury of having someone like Daquan who’s got the experience that he has.” … The Rebels held Fresno State to just 33 percent shooting (25-of-75) including 4-of-17 from 3-point range. “The thing that has been the most consistent for us all season long has been our defense,” Rice said. “To hold a team like Fresno State to 33 percent from the floor (and) 24 percent from three on their home floor is a great performance for us.” … Freshman forward Christian Wood had seven points and three rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench. … The Rebels rebounded from a miserable 16-of-34 (47.1 percent) free throw shooting performance against Fullerton to sink 22-of-29 free throws (75.9 percent) against the Bulldogs.

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