It wasn’t pretty. It probably wasn’t very comforting to Rebels fans. And without Bryce Dejean-Jones and Khem Birch, it certainly wasn’t easy.
But the Rebels did manage to move some fingers away from the panic button with a 72-67 exhibition win over Adams State on Tuesday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
With the injured Dejean-Jones (hamstring) and Birch (ankle/turf toe) watching from the bench, the Rebels got big offensive contributions from newly eligible Kevin Olekaibe and freshman Kendall Smith, who combined for 29 points. Deville Smith also chipped in 10 points and six assists from the point guard spot.
Coming off a stunning loss to Dixie State in their exhibition opener, the Rebels flirted with disaster once again, as they never quite managed to shake Division II Adams State. UNLV carried a 32-29 lead into halftime, and though they were able to push the margin to nine at several times in the second half, Adams State hung around until the end. The Rebels’ struggles from the free throw line probably had something to do with that, as they shot below 60 percent from the stripe for the second straight game (12-of-26).
UNLV’s offense picked up in the second half, shooting 45.2 percent after making just 12-of-33 shots in the first half (36.4 percent), and Kendall Smith was key to the turnaround. He went 6-for-6 from the field and scored all 12 of his points in the second half, mostly on open-court drives to the rim. His layup to put the Rebels up 62-54 with four minutes to play was one of the bigger shots of the game, capping a three-minute stretch in which Smith scored six of the Rebels’ seven points.
Adams State never got closer than five points the rest of the way, and the Rebels closed out the game by making three of four free throws down the stretch.
Olekaibe made most of his impact in the first half, scoring 10 important points when the Rebels had trouble sustaining any kind of offense. He hit three 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes, and though he finished the game just 5-of-17 for 17 points, Olekaibe’s early contributions kept the Rebels from falling into an early hole that probably would have induced mass panic among the fans.
It was a good debut for Olekaibe, who transferred from Fresno State during the offseason and only received clearance from the NCAA the day before taking the floor for the Rebels.
Olekaibe credited his teammates and head coach Dave Rice for making his transition into the starting lineup a smooth one.
“I just wanted to come in and just be patient and take whatever the defense gives me,” Olekaibe said. “My teammates found me on the floor, we got out and ran, and coach Rice is doing a great job with us. He just lets me go out there and play, and I don’t have to worry about anything or second-guess anything. When I was missing those threes, he told me ‘Shoot the next one.’”
After dispatching Adams State, the Rebels head into Friday’s opener with at least one decent exhibition performance under their belts, and a little confidence that the squad is coming together after their disjointed performance in the Dixie State loss.
“Exhibition season is important,” Rice said. “We got to see different combinations and different guys and we understand how far we have to go.”
Roscoe Smith had his second solid exhibition performance at power forward for the Rebels, totaling seven points and a game-high 11 rebounds. He also picked up two assists and blocked two shots in 25 minutes.
He went for a double-double against Dixie State, posting 10 points and 12 rebounds in 21 minutes.
After the game, coach Dave Rice said junior center Khem Birch would likely play on Friday against Portland State. Birch was held out of the Adams State game after sitting out the previous two practices with ankle/turf toe issues.
Birch went through pregame warmups with the rest of the Rebels on Tuesday, but sat out the game for precautionary reasons, according to Rice.
Rebels cut back on 3s
After jacking up 28 3-pointers against Dixie State (and making just eight), the Rebels cut their 3-point attempts to 15 against Adams State, with Olekaibe responsible for 12 of those shots. Olekaibe hit 4-of-12, and the rest of the Rebels went 0-of-3.
Fewer threes is a good move for this particular UNLV team. An open 3-pointer is probably the best and most efficient shot in basketball (besides a layup), but only when the players can hit at a reasonable percentage. Outside shooting is not a strength of this team, so letting the best shooters (Olekaibe, Dejean-Jones, Deville Smith) take most of the long-range attempts would represent good shot distribution.
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