Rebels’ late effort caps improbable comeback

The obvious question: Was the basketball game lost by Boise State or won by UNLV?

The answer is even clearer.

Flawed for so many of those 40 minutes, confused on defense and anemic on offense for more than a half, the Rebels on Saturday delivered a victory that was as deserved as it was improbable.

This doesn’t happen, and yet it did.

Momentum is a crazy thing in sports. You only need an inch of it to produce as memorable a comeback as UNLV has made in nearly a decade.

That the Rebels defeated Boise State 73-69 in a Mountain West game where much of the announced 13,982 at the Thomas &Mack Center were long gone before the dramatics commenced is a testament to UNLV’s determination and evidence of its ability.

You can’t rally from 11 down with 3½ minutes remaining and outscore your league’s most efficient offensive team 17-2 down the stretch and not own skilled players capable of big moments.

Of course, they were also the ones that played poorly enough to trail by 10 at halftime, 11 with 5:22 to go and 11 a few minutes later.

It’s been that kind of season for UNLV.

Never great for long stretches but capable of it for key ones.

“Six weeks ago, we would have lost this game by 20,” junior forward Khem Birch said. “I can’t lie; I’m surprised we won. But the fact coach predicted the whole thing is crazy.”

Dave Rice did what any coach would, telling his players in a timeout with 3:29 remaining that Birch would make the two free throws that awaited him, and that the Rebels would get enough stops and make enough shots to win. Thing is, it rarely happens that way.

But it did because UNLV defended better the final few minutes than it did the previous 38, because senior Kevin Olekaibe made a three-pointer with 2:32 remaining to cut the deficit to four and another with 19 seconds left to give the Rebels a 71-69 lead they wouldn’t relinquish, because point guard Deville Smith made a huge steal and basket with 1:31 left, because Birch went for 15 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks in 34 minutes.

The Rebels don’t win without all of it.

Every. Single. Play.

“We never gave up,” Rice said. “Now, we don’t need to get down 12 on our home floor, but we believed in each other and hung in there and did the things that a winning team does. A huge, huge, huge win for us.”

You have to get a little fortunate to win as UNLV did, and the fact the team shot 32 free throws to 11 for Boise State more than helped, aided by the fact this was one of those micromanaging Mountain West officiating crews whose constant stoppage of play allowed for little flow at either end.

Some referees in this conference really love the sound of their own whistles.

But you also can’t overstate how important a win like this could be for UNLV a month from now. Specifically, how the Rebels managed to pull it off.

You would have thought in the first 20 minutes that Rice and his staff had just skipped the whole scout-your-next-opponent theory, as listless and lost as the Rebels appeared.

We also might have witnessed two of the nation’s worst teams at executing inbounds plays. It was almost comical at times watching each side try not to turn the ball over.

It was just a weird game, one of major runs and an unbelievable ending.

“Even though a lot of the fans left (early), hopefully they will stay the next time to see a finish like that,” Olekaibe said. “I grew up (in Las Vegas) and have dreamed of something like this. We just buckled down and knew that no game was out of our reach.

“I’ve been part of a lot of these games and still remember them when I was (playing for) Fresno State. I told our guys, ‘We can’t lose at home anymore.’ ”

I’m assuming he meant intrasquad scrimmages while at Fresno, but his point about the Rebels not dropping a sixth game at the Thomas &Mack is significant. The more confidence they gain here, the more likely an opportunity could arise to win the conference tournament in March, probably UNLV’s only path to the NCAA tournament.

But the recent success continues. This was UNLV’s fourth-straight win and 12th in its past 15 games.

It was wild, crazy, flawed, up, down, this way and that.

But know this: It was earned.

The Rebels won this game.

Nobody lost it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.