Aztecs’ press proves to be too much for UNLV guards

In a game during which San Diego State was determined to take away UNLV’s big-man tandem of Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, the Rebels’ guards had an opportunity to seize the moment and carry the team into the Mountain West tournament championship game today.

Didn’t happen. Never had a chance.

Deville Smith, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Daquan Cook and Kevin Olekaibe didn’t come through when their team needed them most. As a result, UNLV was a 59-51 loser to the top-seeded Aztecs in a Mountain West semifinal Friday night at the Thomas &Mack.

“You’ve got to be ready for their pressure,” Olekaibe said. “We knew it would be a tough game, and when you play them, you’ve got to be mentally tough and get through it.”

The No. 8-ranked Aztecs (29-3) were not going to let UNLV’s big men dominate inside. They cheated with J.J. O’Brien and double-teamed either Birch or Roscoe Smith whenever they touched the ball. That left someone open on the perimeter, but UNLV rarely took advantage of the opportunity to make San Diego State pay.

I thought we did a good job of keeping the ball out of the post,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “Our thought was to make them take hard twos, one shot at a time. We were pretty good following the game plan.”

Hard indeed. Deville Smith, the junior point guard, was the main culprit. He took a team-high 14 shots, including seven 3-pointers, and was 6 of 14 from the floor, 3 of 7 on 3s, while finishing with 17 points. It seemed as if the Aztecs were in his head even before the opening tip.

But his shooting woes paled in comparison to his primary point guard duties. Not only did he fail to get his teammates involved, with two assists, but he also committed five of UNLV’s 13 turnovers.

“They did a good job defending well,” Deville Smith said. “But I feel like our team … we should have reacted better to their defending. But I got to give credit to them also, how they did well what they did.”

Deville Smith wasn’t alone. Dejean-Jones was 1 of 6 from the floor before hitting two late 3s and finishing with 10 points. In three games against San Diego State this season, he was 11 of 38 from the field.

But Deville Smith did have a bright moment or two. He tried to spark UNLV by hitting his first 3-pointer early in the second half to cut the deficit to 33-31. But San Diego State responded with a 15-2 run to go up 48-33 with 8:23 to play.

The Rebels (20-13) were not handling the Aztecs’ full-court press at that point, and when they did break the press, they failed to find a rhythm in the half court.

“We didn’t respond well there,” said Olekaibe, who had just four points on 2-of-7 shooting. “It wears on you. Even if you break their press they still make it uncomfortable for you. They took our bigs away and we didn’t respond like we needed to.”

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

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