GAME NOTES: A battle for Silver State bragging rights ensues tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center, as the UNLV Runnin' Rebels entertain the Nevada Wolf Pack in Mountain West Conference action.
Off to a 10-5 start after losing several key performers from a season ago, the Runnin' Rebels would appear to be on good footing at the moment, although that may not be the case. Granted, UNLV had run off seven straight victories since losing by only five points to Arizona in early December, but the team ran into some trouble over the weekend against Air Force.
Typically the Falcons don't fare too well when they play MWC opponents on the road, and that had been the story versus UNLV against which Air Force had won only once in 21 road opportunities. But perhaps the Rebels took the visitors a little too lightly on Saturday night because the Falcons managed to dial up a 75-68 win in Sin City to send UNLV to a 6-4 mark at home.
As for Nevada, it is currently a game under .500 on the campaign and just 3-4 at home, but last Saturday the squad produced a narrow 61-58 win over visiting Wyoming. The victory was the second in a row and the third in four tries for the program.
In terms of the all-time series between these programs, the Rebels are ahead by a wide 56-19 margin thanks to an eight-game win streak dating back to the 2006-07 campaign. With both teams being members of the MWC a year ago, UNLV won a pair of meetings, each by double figures.
Deonte Burton played the hero yet again for the Wolf Pack as he scored the go- ahead basket versus Wyoming with just over 30 seconds remaining in regulation on Saturday. One of four starters to score in double figures for Nevada, Burton finished with 16 points, followed by Cole Huff with 15. AJ West tallied 12 points and 12 rebounds, allowing the Pack to claim a 35-26 rebounding advantage, followed by Michael Perez with 11 points and six assists.
Perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of the win for the Pack over the weekend was the fact that Jerry Evans Jr. was held to just five points and six rebounds in 28 minutes of action. Considering the hosts used just two reserves who combined for a paltry two points, one would have thought that Evans (14.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg) would have played a more central role in such a close call. Burton, one of the program's all-time offensive leaders, continues to light up the scoreboard to the tune of 21.8 ppg.
UNLV was beaten on the glass last Saturday night, albeit by a minimal margin, but that little edge was enough to give the Falcons enough confidence to knock off the Runnin' Rebels in enemy territory. Bryce Dejean-Jones led the offense with a career-high 28 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field, while Kevin Olekaibe pitched in with 13 points during the setback. Roscoe Smith, one of the stronger inside players for the Rebels this season, was limited to just four points on 1-of-5 shooting.
Now second on the team in scoring with 12.5 ppg, Smith is still averaging a double-double thanks to his team-best 12.7 rpg, one of the top averages in the country at the moment. However, having him on the floor in clutch situations is not always the best option for the Rebels given that he has but five assists in 15 starts and is shooting a mere 62.1 percent at the free-throw line. Dejean-Jones (14.4 ppg), the leading scorer in three straight games and overall now, can also be a liability at the charity stripe (.622) as the team makes a collective 62.7 percent at the line.
If nothing else, the Runnin' Rebels need to rebound from the loss to Air Force just to prove that it was a fluke and that the campaign will not fall apart due to that one upset at home. Expect Smith to again establish himself as a threat in the paint.
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