LAS VEGAS (AP) – The UNLV Rebels are starting to find their groove.
Playing two games on the other side of the Las Vegas Strip from its campus, UNLV played perhaps its two best games of the season.
Kevin Olekaibe scored 17 points, including four 3-pointers, to lead UNLV over Mississippi State 82-66 in the Las Vegas Classic championship game on Monday night.
Also for UNLV (8-4), Classic MVP Deville Smith added 15 points, while Roscoe Smith had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
“My main focus was to get the stops on the defensive end and I shake my team up,” Smith said. “Those are my jobs.”
Khem Birch had 11 points and eight rebounds for the Rebels, who went 4-0 in the Classic.
“(Mississippi State) mixed their defenses extremely well and yet we were able to find open guys and make 11 three-point shots,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We shot the ball extremely well the last four, five games, which was a huge key for us. I always thought we were a good shooting team. We’re starting to make shots. That’s a huge deal for us.”
Craig Sword led Mississippi State (9-3) with 18 points. Colin Borchert added 12 points and six rebounds for the Bulldogs, who finished 3-1 in the Classic.
The Rebels converted 11 three-pointers, while the Bulldogs made only 1 of 11 attempts from beyond the arc.
UNLV was outscored in the paint, 52-24, but went 19 of 24 from the free-throw line, while Mississippi State made good on 9 of 12.
“The reason why (UNLV) is coming together is that they has so many new pieces,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “Those guys are figuring out how to play with each other. I was impressed on how fast they played. When you give up a defensive rebound or you make a mistake, they get in transition and they have so many guards. They can rebound, pass, and shoot.”
In the first half, the Rebels converted 9 of 16 from 3-point range as Olekaibe and Smith both hit three 3-pointers.
“We had guys come off the bench with solid contributions,” Rice said. “That’s a quality win. Mississippi State is a big physical team. They have a bunch of guys that can drive.”
The Bulldogs jumped to 10-5 lead in the first five minutes, but the Rebels went on an 18-6 run and never trailed again. UNLV took the lead for good on a Smith 3-pointer with 12:21 until halftime. There were only seven free throws by both teams in the half.
“(Sword) did not have a great first half,“ Ray said. “We look to Craig to manufacture offense. We were kind of a lot of loss. Any time you get to a championship in a tournament, it’s a good tournament. You can’t win the big tournaments, unless you win the little tournaments.”
The Rebels never let their lead go below 13 points in the second half and it grew to as many as 24.
This was the team’s first meeting since Dec. 30, 1980, when the Rebels won in Las Vegas.
UNLV next hosts Cal State-Fullerton back across The Strip in the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday. Mississippi State is off until Jan. 2 when it hosts Maryland-Eastern Shore.