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December 8, 2013
UNLV gives 'Cats tussle
SHOWING UP ON ROAD
It was a fight from beginning to end.
UNLV wasn't given much of a chance to compete with the nation's No. 2 squad in its first road game of the season. The Runnin' Rebels were more than 15-point underdogs. You would've never guessed UNLV wasn't on par with the Wildcats after watching for 40 minutes.
Despite having scoring and defensive deficiencies through the first six games of the season, which included three losses, the Rebels came out with a swagger that they, seemingly, had been holding back.
The bottom line was that they looked like they belonged. That's a major step in the right direction after suffering three uncommon losses on its home court in the first month of the season.
Coming off the bench for disciplinary reasons, Bryce Dejean-Jones immediately sparked a fire on the offensive end, scoring 16 total points and carrying the load on that end of the floor.
But it wasn't all Dejean-Jones who did work, especially in the first half. Roscoe Smith, Kevin Olekaibe and Kendall Smith all contributed in the scoring department, helping UNLV to a lead of 42-39.
With Khem Birch saddled with foul trouble, the Rebels didn't get off to the start that they wanted in the second half, but continued to hang around down the stretch until the loss of Kendall Smith with a leg injury eventually was too much for UNLV to deal with.
Rice was forced into long stretches without his starting point guard and center in the second half. That could've been the driving force of the Rebels being able to score just 16 points in the final 20 minutes.
UNLV has made the type of overall improvement in the first seven games that fans can see that the Rebels should be formidable whenever Mountain West Conference play rolls around.
There is one glaring weakness, though, that has to be addressed. UNLV is still struggling whenever the game is on the line. It's like the Rebels follow the game plan for 35 minutes and, when the game is on the line, get away from what put them in the position to win.
Dejean-Jones has been the "guy" in late game situations for the first month. Whether he's comfortable in that role or not isn't relevant. The fact that the Rebels haven't been productive in those situations is what needs to be looked at.
Where UNLV decides to attack moving forward is anyone's guess. How long can they continue to allow Dejean-Jones to have the ball in his hands without making any passes? That is going to be on Rice and the staff. If he's the best option, the Rebels are going to have to find a better way to get him the ball in a position to be more effective.
Playing in his first road game, Kendall Smith was one area of worry for the Rebels. Could he match veteran T.J. McConnell's play at the point guard spot? Would the environment be too much for Smith?
From the looks of things, nothing is going to be too big for the UNLV freshman. He not only matched McConnell, but actually outplayed for much of the game before succumbing to an injury to his thigh area.
It was Smith's inability to come back in the game that may have sealed the Rebels' fate. UNLV tried both DeVille Smith and DaQuan Cook for long stretches without the effectiveness of Kendall Smith. McConnell also started to shine in crunch time.
McConnell became the Wildcats top player whenever Arizona needed to make a play. He finished with 13 points and six assists and three steals, with the majority of that damage coming after Kendall Smith's departure.
If the Rebels can take one thing away from a rough non-conference slate, it's the fact that Kendall Smith looks like he can really play. That bodes very well for the rest of this season but for the foreseeable future for the Rebel program.