A year ago, Kevin Olekaibe was in the other locker room, listening to the other coach, and not fearing the other team. At that time, the opponent was UNLV.
Olekaibe recalled the message his former coach, Rodney Terry, delivered before Fresno State upset the Rebels at the Thomas &Mack Center.
“Coach Terry told us, ‘Hit them in the mouth and keep punching,’ ” Olekaibe said. “So I know they are always going to play hard, and they’re going to give us their best shot.
“We know that no team in the conference is going to be scared of us, no matter what names we have on paper.”
Obviously, when Olekaibe says “we” he’s now talking about UNLV. Terry granted Olekaibe a release last summer and allowed the senior guard to transfer to his hometown school. In early November, the NCAA and Mountain West approved a waiver that allowed Olekaibe, who wanted to help care for his ill father, to play for the Rebels this season.
Terry’s act deserves to be applauded, even if it hurt the Bulldogs once and might again today.
UNLV (12-7, 3-3) hosts Fresno State (8-12, 1-6) at 7:05 p.m. in the teams’ second meeting this month. Olekaibe had 13 points to help the Rebels beat the Bulldogs 75-62 in the conference opener Jan. 1.
That game underscored Olekaibe’s importance to his new team. He shot 1-for-7 from 3-point range, but he made UNLV’s only 3 in its 1-for-16 performance.
“I was off that game,” he said. “At least I hit one.”
The Rebels hold the Division I record for most consecutive games (894) with a made 3-pointer, a streak that dates to the 1986-87 season and might have ended in Fresno, Calif., if not for Olekaibe.
The streak aside, UNLV might be one of the nation’s weakest long-range shooting teams if not for Olekaibe, who has 43 of the team’s 103 3-pointers. He’s the only player with at least 20 made 3s, and his shooting percentage (.371) is second to freshman Kendall Smith, who is 5 of 12 (.417) from behind the arc.
Junior guards Deville Smith (19 of 56, .339) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (14 of 57, .246) are the only other Rebels who have made at least 10 3-pointers.
“He definitely gives us a threat of a 3-point shooter,” coach Dave Rice said. “No doubt, Kevin is a huge part of our outside shooting attack.”
The Rebels have faced fewer zone defenses, and are more effective against the zones they are seeing, largely because of Olekaibe’s steady hand and, more recently, the emergence of Deville Smith.
“I wouldn’t say it’s our weakness, but (the 3s) are just not falling for us right now, so we’ve got to compensate on the defensive end,” Olekaibe said. “Coach has a lot of confidence in me and tells me to shoot whenever I’m open and don’t think about it.”
Olekaibe has made at least one 3-pointer in 17 of 19 games. He connected on 4 of 5 3s and scored 14 points in UNLV’s signature win of the season, 76-73 at New Mexico on Jan. 15.
A former Cimarron-Memorial High School standout who averaged 35.6 points as a senior, Olekaibe was not recruited by the Rebels, but earned playing time right away at Fresno State.
In three years with the Bulldogs, Olekaibe started 76 of 92 games and compiled 1,169 points, enough to rank 20th on the program’s all-time list, 15 spots ahead of NBA All-Star Paul George of the Indiana Pacers. (George scored 974 points in two seasons for Fresno State.)
In a two-game sweep of UNLV last season, Olekaibe totaled 34 points and made seven 3-pointers.
The Bulldogs’ strength is the play of their guards — senior Tyler Johnson and sophomores Marvelle Harris and Cezar Guerrero — but they limp in on a four-game losing streak. UNR upended Fresno State 96-86 in double overtime on Wednesday.
“They’re not going to come here thinking, ‘We’re going to get blown out,’ ” Olekaibe said. “Coach Terry gets the best out of his players. I know what type of coach he is, and he’s doing a great job of getting his team to play hard. We’ve got to match their intensity. I told the team, we can’t lose any more games.”
Aside from his 3-point shooting skills, Olekaibe’s ability to join a new team and immediately become a leader has most impressed Rice.
“Kevin always does the right thing on and off the court,” Rice said. “He’s a high-character guy.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.