With ill father on his mind, Olekaibe plays best game of season in UNLV win

LOGAN, Utah — The pain Kevin Olekaibe was playing through was not obvious to see. It was emotional pain, and it was in his eyes and words after the game.

Olekaibe received a call Friday night from his mom, Esther, who delivered news that his dad, Benson, suffered a physical setback and had to be rushed from hospice care to a hospital.

“It was very tough for me,” UNLV’s senior guard said. “It was hard to even talk and say what was going on. It was hard for me to think about it. I prayed.

“I knew I had to come out and play hard and play like it wasn’t affecting me.”

Olekaibe missed his first three 3-point attempts Saturday. But that hardship was a minor obstacle that he was able to overcome in his most impressive performance of the season.

He might have been an unlikely candidate to lead a rally, but Olekaibe did just that by scoring 16 of his season-high 21 points in the second half to shoot the Rebels to a 73-62 victory over Utah State at Smith Spectrum.

Olekaibe, a former Cimarron-Memorial High School star, transferred from Fresno State last summer to be close to home and his ill father, who is paralyzed from the waist down and unable to speak as a result of two strokes. The Olekaibe family ordeal was put into perspective again this weekend.

“His dad took a significant turn for the worse last night, and I know it was weighing heavily on his mind,” coach Dave Rice said. “We dedicated the game to Kevin and his dad.

“Kevin was able to clear his mind and focus on what was going on between the lines. It was a huge performance by him.”

Junior forward Khem Birch recorded 11 points, 12 rebounds and nine blocked shots, and Bryce Dejean-Jones finished with 17 points as UNLV (17-8, 8-4 Mountain West) erased a 31-29 halftime deficit to win going away.

The Aggies (15-10, 5-8) had trimmed a 10-point deficit in half before Olekaibe stepped up to silence the crowd of 10,002. With the shot clock winding down, Olekaibe sank a 3-pointer to put the Rebels ahead 66-58 with 3:12 remaining.

UNLV shot 69 percent from the field in the second half and 56.6 percent (30 of 53) for the game. Olekaibe hit 8 of 12 shots, including 4 of 8 3s, and added three rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes. He let loose of some emotion after a breakaway dunk in the final two minutes.

“I’m so happy we won for Kevin and his dad,” Birch said. “I didn’t find out until just after the game.”

Stew Morrill, whose home record as Utah State coach dropped to 236-26 in 16 years, was denied his 600th career victory. For Morrill, the reasons for his team’s loss were obvious. The Rebels were too athletic and fast, harassing perimeter shooters and funneling them into the lane, where Birch was waiting to defend and trigger fast-break opportunities.

“The whole story of the game is how their athleticism controlled everything,” Morrill said. “They were on it defensively. We couldn’t get clean looks, and they blocked shot after shot. With their talent level, they’re a handful.”

Aggies center Jarred Shaw kept it competitive, working the low post for 20 points and 12 rebounds. But Utah State’s main perimeter threats, Spencer Butterfield and Preston Medlin, combined to shoot 6-for-26.

The lopsided second half was a replay of UNLV’s 62-42 win in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 22.

The Aggies took a 29-24 lead after a Butterfield 3-pointer and a layup by Shaw. Olekaibe made his first 3 before the half, and the Rebels ran wild from there.

“Kevin made huge plays in the second half to get us the lead,” Rice said. “Khem was sensational. He’s just a rim protector. When you’re one block away from a triple-double, it’s a pretty special game.”

Olekaibe hit back-to-back 3s in the first three minutes of the second half, and Roscoe Smith’s fast-break layup put UNLV up 41-36 at the 16:27 mark. Morrill used a timeout, but he had no answers. Dejean-Jones grabbed a rebound, dribbled the length of the floor and dunked on Medlin.

“There is a good chance we could be No. 2 or No. 1 in this league. There is still a chance we could be on top,” Birch said of the Rebels, who are third in the conference with second-place New Mexico coming to Las Vegas on Wednesday.

Olekaibe showed his left hand, on which he had written “DAD” in black ink.

“I was in a rhythm,” he said. “It’s a big win for us.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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