UNR star guard Deonte Burton expected to see a heavy dose of tall, athletic UNLV defender Bryce Dejean-Jones guarding him at the Thomas &Mack Center on Wednesday night.
Burton was shocked when he instead found freshman Kendall Smith trying to chase him around the floor early in the game.
When asked whether it was a pleasant surprise, Burton’s face lit up with a huge smile.
“Yes,” he said, laughing.
The senior from Los Angeles took full advantage of the matchup as he scored 29 points and added three assists as UNR snapped an eight-game losing streak to UNLV with a 74-71 victory.
“I was surprised by it,” Burton said of Smith trying to cover him. “We just have to exploit the matchups and mismatches, and that’s what we did tonight.”
Burton, who has averaged in double figures in each of his first three seasons and entered Wednesday night’s game scoring a career-best 21.8 points per game, is a difficult assignment for even the most experienced defender.
For most first-year players, the task is nearly impossible.
“I thought (Deonte) really took advantage of their freshman point guard,” UNR coach David Carter said. “It’s hard when you have a freshman trying to cover a senior. We’ve been there before. I thought he took advantage of the mismatch.”
UNLV coach Dave Rice said Smith covering Burton was not necessarily part of the game plan. The Rebels planned to try several different defenders on Burton, including Dejean-Jones and Kevin Olekaibe.
Jelan Kendrick could have also been a viable option to share some of the responsibility, but the sophomore guard did not play because he was “significantly late” to practice, according to Rice.
The reason Smith ended up on Burton so much was that UNLV’s inefficiency on offense forced Smith into being responsible for Burton far too often.
“On dead ball situations, we were going to mix it up and put different guys on him,” Rice said. “The problem was we didn’t make enough baskets, so on our defensive transition, it’s hard for someone other than the point guard to pick him up.
“Kendall did a solid job on him the first two-thirds of the first half.”
Burton had eight points and UNLV led by nine with 2:30 left in the first half when the UNR guard got hot. He hit three straight jumpers, including a 3-pointer, to cut the deficit to 34-32 with 1:06 to play before halftime.
“He’s a very experienced player, he’s confident. It’s tough to double team him because he has the ball in the middle of the floor and he’s such a good passer,” Rice said. “We tried to limit him as much as possible, but he got away from us there with a few baskets late in the first half and i thought that was the difference in the game.”
Burton’s surge helped build momentum for the Wolf Pack, who took control with an 11-0 run to open the second half. The spurt was capped by back-to-back layups by Burton.
When UNLV did over-commit to stopping Burton in the second half, other options opened up for UNR.
Guard Michael Perez, a transfer from UTEP, scored 14 points in the second half to equal his season-high with 18 points. Perez knocked down a pair of 3-pointers and beat the Rebels on several backdoor cuts for layups.
He said the key to the win was to stick to the game plan despite being caught off guard by the Rebels’ defensive strategy.
“We still called the same plays. Deonte just did what he does tonight,” Perez said. “Then when they did switch to what we were preparing for, it opened some other things up for us.”
Carter downplayed the significance of beating UNLV, saying he was more pleased with the 3-0 start in league play.
He did concede, however, he was happy for Burton and fellow senior Jerry Evans Jr. to finally beat the arch-rivals.
“It’s their fourth year in the program and (UNLV) has kind of handled us. I think they’ve beaten us four in a row while they’ve been here,” Carter said. “To be able to get a win is a tribute to them and I know they’re very excited.”
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.