Smaller lineup key for Rebels in OT win over Fresno State

Sometimes big isn’t necessarily better.

Fresno State was running UNLV ragged on the perimeter Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, hitting 3-point shots, then using an effective pick-and-roll game to get to the basket. And while Rebels coach Dave Rice is blessed to have size and length with Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, he had to make a major adjustment.

He decided to sit Smith for extended minutes, use four guards with Birch and match Fresno State’s quickness. Though there were some anxious moments in the second half and overtime, the ploy paid off as UNLV prevailed 75-73 in front of 13,849.

“With the ball screens they were using, we were having a hard time matching up when we switched, and they were getting open looks,” Rice said. “By going small, we were able to do a better job guarding them.”

Still, it took a play by the 6-foot-9-inch Birch, the biggest man on the floor, to allow the Rebels to improve to 13-7 overall and 4-3 in the Mountain West. He was waiting for Cezar Guerrero in the final seconds of overtime and blocked his layup attempt before the final buzzer.

It was a heady play by point guard Deville Smith that led to Birch’s win-preserving swat. Guerrero, who was killing UNLV from outside, making five 3-pointers, had been left open in the second half by Smith, who was helping out on Paul Watson, Fresno State’s other sharpshooter who made four 3s. Guerrero was hoping to get one final uncontested look for the win, and as the high screen was set to spring him free, Smith eluded the screen and stayed with Guerrero as he realized he was going to have to take the ball to the basket.

As Smith funnelled Guerrero into the key, Birch was waiting and Guerrero was unable to get the clean look he so desperately needed.

“I thought I got hit, but at the end of the day, they made a good play,” said Guerrero, who finished with 18 points and six assists. “I was surprised they were leaving me open early in the second half, but we figured they were going to be switching off.”

Rice said once UNLV went small, there wasn’t as much need to switch. And Deville Smith was able to play his position more effectively.

“Deville did really well,” Rice said. “Our guys rallied around him. They’ll play hard for him, and they love playing with him.”

Deville Smith said he’s doing a better job of adjusting to the level of play, and in 41 minutes, he had four assists, two steals and just two turnovers. His biggest assist came with a minute left in overtime when he drove toward the basket, attracted two defenders and kicked the ball out to a wide-open Bryce Dejean-Jones, who was camped out at the 3-point arc. Jones, who had struggled all night with his shooting, calmly knocked down the 3 to put UNLV ahead 73-72.

“I’m just looking for my teammate in that situation,” Deville Smith said in what basically was a broken play gone good.

Deville Smith, who had 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting (2 of 7 from 3-point range), said he’s trying to do a better job of not forcing the action, though some of his shots were contested as he tried to make something happen.

“I’m letting my game come to me, and I’m seeing things clearer on the floor,” he said.

Fresno State (8-13, 1-7) dropped its fifth straight game and seventh in the past eight.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” coach Rodney Terry said. “We deserved to win this game. We did a great job with the scouting report, but we came up short in the end.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at 702-387-2913 or scarp@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.