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January 23, 2014

UNLV locks down Aggies

No, it wasn't quite like the night that Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin' Rebels held Seth Greenberg's Long Beach State club to 29 points back in 1991, but Wednesday night's win over Utah State might have been just as impressive.

For one, Greenberg's 49'ers really weren't even trying to score in the Big West Conference Tournament opening round contest. Utah State simply never got going on offense and it snowballed from there, rarely finding an open shot to its liking.

UNLV held the No. 3 best outside shooting team in the country to 12% from beyond the arc, as the Aggies concluded the game 2-of-17. Overall, the Rebels held USU to 31% from the field during their 62-42 victory.

Only four times in the past twenty years has UNLV held opponents to fewer points, with the last coming in 2008-09 under Lon Kruger when the Rebels defeated Air Force by a 59-38 margin.

Air Force took 15 fewer shots that night, despite scoring only four points less.

After tonight's game, in which the Rebels held USU to its lowest point total since 1999, UNLV is in first place nationally in 3-point field goal defense. Only three teams all year have shot better than 35% from beyond the arc against the Rebels.

That was the type of effort that UNLV needed to get in order to earn its first home conference win of the season. It was gritty. It was determined. It included nine blocks.

USU, which came into the game leading the country in assist % per made field goals, was held to only four - one coming before halftime.

The concerted effort from the Rebels to defend is extremely promising. UNLV can go look no further than conference rival, San Diego State, and see how valuable a strong effort on the defensive end of the floor can cover up a whole lot of flaws elsewhere.

Sure, the Rebels aren't going to magically turn into an efficient, and more importantly consistent, offensive club this season, but if they buy into the idea of defending on every possession, Dave Rice will have done a masterful job in his most trying year as head coach.

RIDING WITH DEVILLE

Deville Smith came to UNLV as a point guard with the ability to put some points on the scoreboard. Little did Rebel fans realize how important that ability would end up becoming this season.

He may not be the most consistent guy that UNLV has ever had shooting the ball from the one position, but what has become consistent is how the Rebels react to however he is playing.

Deville shot 2-of-12 combined in home losses to Air Force and UNR. He followed that up with a 6-of-9 outing at "The Pit" in a surprising road win at New Mexico for UNLV. Deville struggled from the field in the next game at San Diego State (a loss) before shooting 6-of-11 from the field against USU.

He has basically become the barometer for how UNLV's offense is going to go. When he's sputtering, the Rebels tank is empty. When he get's it going, it feels like UNLV has enough firepower to hang with any team left on its schedule.

This isn't what many expected from the Mississippi State transfer. Blessed with quickness and a solid handle, UNLV was supposedly getting a playmaker that could help push tempo and create easy shots for his teammates.

What the Rebels have gotten is a point guard that loves to shoot. He took three more shots than any other member of the roster against the Aggies. He took two less than shooting guard and wing, Kevin Olekaibe and Bryce Dejean-Jones, combined for. And this was coming off the SDSU outing in which he attempted 19 shots from the field.

Like many players before him, Deville has benefited from the supreme confidence that Rice gives his players. It certainly looks as though Rice has decided that Deville is the guy that he wanted to give the proverbial "green light" to.

It also appears that the Rebels are going to ride the Deville Smith wave. Whenever it is at its crest, UNLV is going to be hanging 10. Whenever it crashes, the Rebels may go tumbling along with it.



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