It wasn't pretty by any means, but in the end UNLV did what they had to do to avoid another disappointment on their home court Friday night. Although the Mavericks never led in the game, they fought hard and rallied throughout, cashing in on the Rebels' defensive mistakes and ultimately tying the game at 68 on a three-pointer from forward Mike Rostampour with 1:38 left in regulation. Junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones (19 points, 8 rebounds) made two free throws following that, but guard Devin Patterson answered with a pair of clutch free throws himself to tie the game at 70 with 42 seconds left.
Coach Dave Rice used a timeout to set up a play for Dejean-Jones on the following possession. Coming off a screen, Dejean-Jones had a decent look, but missed a 15-foot jumper from the right wing. While junior forward Roscoe Smith led the Rebels with 22 rebounds, the most since Louis Amundson did the same in 2004, it was center Khem Birch who got the biggest one of the night.
After grabbing the rebound, Birch got the put back to put the Rebels back up by two. And if that wasn't enough, Birch returned on the defensive side and blocked Omaha guard C.J. Carter's layup attempt on the other end. After the intentional foul, Jelan Kendrick hit the second of two free throws and on Omaha's final possession, Carter put up a last second 3-point try that hit the rim at the buzzer.
Coming off their embarrassing 86-65 loss to UC Santa Barbara, Roscoe Smith and the Rebels were just happy to come away with a win on Friday:
"We definitely found a positive out of a negative situation." Smith said. "We knew coming into the season we weren't going to go undefeated and the whole season wasn't going to be sunshine. There were going to be some down moments."
"A down moment" would be a pretty generous way to describe the Runnin' Rebels' performance against UCSB Tuesday night, but you can understand where Smith is coming from. With so many new faces on the roster, most pundits didn't have high expectations for UNLV going into the season. At least compared to recent years. And based on what I've seen thus far, that all seems completely justified. UNLV still appears to be a young team lacking chemistry.
They committed 21 turnovers (15 in the first half) and continued to struggle from the free throw line going 11 for 22 on the night. This allowed Omaha to stick around longer than they probably should have. But that being said, there's one thing I saw Friday night that I didn't see against UC Santa Barbara: Effort. Players stepped up when they needed to and didn't get discouraged when Omaha fought their way back into the game. Roscoe Smith's 17 points and 22 rebounds (career highs) being a prime example.
I expect the Rebels to get better as the season progresses, but there will definitely be more growing pains going forward. They have a tough challenge this Tuesday against Arizona State, who've beaten all three of their opponents by 28 points or more to start the season. But if the Rebels limit their mistakes, get solid contributions on both ends of the court and players like Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean-Jones step into leadership roles for this team, they'll win their fair share of games this season.