December 24, 2013 10:28:13 AM
LAS VEGAS -- The UNLV men's basketball team is starting to find its 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 to an 82-66 victory against Mississippi State in the Las Vegas Classic championship game on Monday night.
The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for MSU (9-3).
"We talked about chipping away in the second half," MSU coach Rick Ray said. "We can't give a good quality club a head start like that. We just didn't handle any of the adversity that took place in the game. We had some opportunities at the rim and we didn't finish."
MSU built a 10-5 lead on two Dre Applewhite free throws and a Fred Thomas dunk. UNLV (8-4) recovered for a 13-12 lead and stretched its advantage to 21-14 on an 8-0 run. Former MSU guard Deville Smith has three of the Rebels' nine 3-pointers in the first half to help push the advantage to 29-16. MSU went more than five minutes between field goals during UNLV's spurt. The Rebels shot 52 percent from the field in the first half en route to a 42-24 halftime lead.
Classic MVP Deville Smith added 15 points, while Roscoe Smith had 12 points and 12 rebounds for UNLV (8-4).
"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. It also had wins against Radford, Sacred Heart, and Santa Clara.
"(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.
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 MSU was 9 of 12.
"The reason why (UNLV) is coming together is they have so many new pieces," 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 Deville Smith 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 Deville Smith 3-pointer with 12 minutes, 21 seconds 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 will play host to Cal State-Fullerton on Saturday in the Thomas & Mack Center, while MSU will return to action Jan. 2 when it plays host to Maryland-Eastern Shore.