FRESNO, Calif. — It was a new year, a chance to exorcise demons and another opportunity to establish an identity.
UNLV wasn’t about to let the sins of its past continue to linger as the calendar turned to 2014. On Wednesday, the Rebels overcame poor perimeter shooting and poor point-guard play to start the Mountain West portion of their schedule with a 75-62 victory over Fresno State.
The victory was the seventh straight for UNLV (10-4). More important, the Rebels beat a team that went 2-0 against them last year, doing so despite shooting 1 of 16 on 3-point attempts.
“This is a group of guys that sticks together,” said guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who was UNLV’s leading scorer with a career-high 24 points and its emotional leader. “We’ve been together every day since June.”
Dejean-Jones was there for teammate Khem Birch after Birch was fouled hard by Cezar Guerrero with 13:24 to play and UNLV nursing a 44-39 lead. Dejean-Jones took issue with Guerrero’s tactics and wound up getting into a war of words with Bulldogs guard Marvelle Harris. Dejean-Jones and Harris were issued technicals, but it also showed UNLV’s evolving identity as a team that will watch out for each other.
Birch appreciated his teammate’s gesture.
“They kinda punked us last year,”Birch said. “We didn’t want them to think they could continue to do that.”
At first, the brief skirmish seemed to help Fresno State, which closed within 46-45. But Dejean-Jones, Birch and Roscoe Smith took over, leading a 19-7 spurt in a 5-minute, 24-second span that extended UNLV’s lead to 65-52 with 4:41 left.
The Bulldogs (7-7, 0-1 MW) were unable to rally late despite getting 25 points from Harris and 16 from Guerrero.
“At halftime, we talked about rebounding better,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said after his team was outrebounded 23-20 in the first half. “We did a much better job of team rebounding in the second half and were able to control things better.”
UNLV finished with a 50-41 rebounding edge. The Rebels also ran effectively, outscoring Fresno State 21-10 on the fast break. The Bulldogs, who struggled against the length of the 6-foot-9-inch Birch, the 6-8 Smith and the 6-5 Jones, shot 33 percent from the floor and were 4 of 17 on 3-point attempts.
“We gotta get back,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said of getting beat in transition during the second half. “We gotta take those baskets away and make an effort to score more.”
But with UNLV’s length, that was going to be tough for Fresno State to do effectively long term.
“We wanted to work inside against them because we thought we had a size advantage,” said Birch, who had 14 points, 17 rebounds and four blocked shots in 33 minutes. “Our plan was to pound them inside, and it was pretty effective.”
Smith was equally effective, with 13 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes. And while UNLV’s point-guard play from freshman Kendall Smith and junior Deville Smith was spotty at best, Kevin Olekaibe helped offset the Smiths with 13 points, three assists and two steals.
Olekaibe, who played three years for Fresno State before being allowed to transfer to UNLV for his senior season to be with his ailing father, received a nice reception from the 5,968 fans at the Save Mart Center.
“I appreciated that,” said Olekaibe, whose 3-pointer late in the first half extended UNLV’s NCAA-record streak to 889 straight games with a 3-pointer. “I think they understand my situation. But once the game starts, you’re trying to win.
“This was big for us. To come in here on New Year’s Day and win a conference road game to start league play, I think it shows what kind of guys we have. It’s a very close group that plays for each other and helps each other.”
Dejean-Jones helped out perhaps the most of anyone. With the Rebels’ point guards struggling — Kendall Smith was 1 for 7 from the floor with two turnovers, and Deville Smith was 0 for 3, all from beyond the 3-point arc, with four turnovers — Rice turned to the junior to lead the team.
“It shows Bryce’s maturity that we could use him as almost a hybrid point guard, and he made all the right plays and showed great leadership,” Rice said.
Dejean-Jones said at this point of the season, all players need to raise their level of play.
“Just the word ‘conference’ makes everyone play a little harder,” he said. “We learned last year we have to keep our intensity level up the entire game.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.