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Firebirds can provide just the tonic for reeling UNLV

When UNLV’s 2014-15 basketball schedule was released during the summer and the name “Saint Katherine” appeared on it, people were scratching their heads and echoing a collective, “Who?”

But maybe coach Dave Rice knew what he was doing. In the wake of his team’s dismal defensive display Wednesday night at Tempe, Ariz., where the Rebels were shot out of the gym by Arizona State 77-55, a tutorial on guarding the perimeter as well as a confidence booster is in order. And for those who will venture out to Orleans Arena and watch the 7 p.m. nonconference game against the Firebirds, an NAIA program with a 1-7 record, they should witness the ultimate bounce-back game.

“We like playing at The Orleans,” Rice said. “It keeps us in town as we get ready for finals next week. It also gives us a chance to work on some things as a team. This group is still learning about each other, so we have an opportunity to get better.”

The Rebels (4-2) probably will be short-handed tonight. Leading scorer Rashad Vaughn suffered back spasms in the second half Wednesday, and Jelan Kendrick injured his left groin just before halftime.

Both are listed as doubtful and will be game-time decisions. If they can’t play, freshmen Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish probably will replace them in the starting lineup.

UNLV also granted sophomore guard Kendall Smith his official release Thursday morning after Smith requested a transfer Tuesday.

But while Rice and his staff will use tonight as an opportunity to address those defensive deficiencies and get the back-of-the-rotation players some extra minutes, he’s not going to get overly excited. He understands the level of the competition, and while he won’t say it, tonight is a glorified controlled scrimmage with a likelihood that some UNLV players will get to pad their individual stats at the expense of Saint Katherine, which started its program three years ago and offers only partial scholarships.

“There better not be a letdown,” Rice said. “We can’t overlook anyone right now.”

The first meeting between the programs offers the starkest of contrasts. Saint Katherine’s enrollment is just 75. Including student managers and players, the basketball team comprises 23 percent of the school’s population.

The team plays its home games at Palomar Junior College, a half-mile from its San Marcos, Calif., campus.

Last year, Saint Katherine lost by an average of 53 points a game in going 6-21. In a three-week span last December, it lost four straight by an average of almost 70 points a game, including an 83-point loss to San Diego State followed by a 73-point defeat to Utah the next day.

But Firebirds coach Jose De La Garma has his reasons for playing the Rebels.

“We’re doing it for exposure,” said De La Garma, whose team is getting $5,000 plus expenses from UNLV. “For our kids, it’s a chance to play in a big-time game. Right now, we can’t give them a lot. But we can give them a Division I experience.

“I do worry about the overall psyche of our team. Nobody likes to lose by 50 or 60. But we’re trying to change our image. We’re more competitive this year. We’re getting better players.”

Former Basic High School guard Jaylen Rose is on the roster of Saint Katherine, which is coming off an 81-69 loss to Westminster College on Wednesday in Utah.

De La Garma is trying to look at the big picture.

“We’re obviously outgunned and outmatched right now against these Division I teams,” he said. “But we can control our effort and our execution. We’re making progress, and we have great kids who love being here. As a coach, you can’t ask for more than that.”

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

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