UNLV basketball:

The Rebels’ Deville Smith soaks in victory months in the making

The junior guard earns Las Vegas Classic MVP honors after helping UNLV defeat Mississippi State 82-66

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Deville Smith holds the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic championship trophy and his MVP trophy Monday, Dec. 23 2013, at the Orleans Arena. UNLV beat Mississippi State 82-66.

Las Vegas Classic: UNLV vs. Mississippi St.

UNLV forwards Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch embrace after their Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic championship game against Mississippi State on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, at the Orleans Arena. UNLV won the game 82-66. Launch slideshow »

You could say Deville Smith’s preparations for this game started last summer, and that gets at the truth. It’s also not wrong to say it started at the beginning of this season, when he was the Rebels’ starting point guard with an eye toward a possible matchup nearly two months away.

However, the best way to say it is Smith started to get serious about taking down Mississippi State — the first of his three colleges — just more than a week ago when he finally was able to play a game and feel healthy the whole way.

Smith continued his rampage from Sunday night and helped bury Mississippi State 82-66 with 15 points and five assists. Over two games at the Orleans Arena — the first played knowing a win would set up this matchup — Smith registered 36 points on 56.5 percent shooting, 10 assists to six turnovers and five rebounds in 59 minutes.

“He was hungry,” UNLV’s Roscoe Smith said of Deville Smith, who was named the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic MVP.

Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch were named to the all-tournament team. Birch finished this game with 11 points and eight rebounds while Roscoe Smith posted his eighth double-double of the season with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Kevin Olekaibe led the Rebels against the Bulldogs with 17 points on 4-of-8 shooting.

Deville Smith, a Jackson, Miss., native, started his career at Mississippi State, where he averaged 4.2 points per game as a freshman. Then came a coaching change and he decided to transfer for a year to Southwest Mississippi Community College. He committed to UNLV last March, shortly after visiting Las Vegas.

This tournament has been circled since last summer, Deville Smith said, when he found out that Mississippi State was in the field. He still knows a lot of players on the team and looked forward to a possible meeting.

“I couldn’t wait for it,” he said.

His teammates noticed. They could see the effort he was putting into preseason practices and knew that at least part of that was geared toward getting ready for this tournament.

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UNLV forwards Khem Birch, left, and Roscoe Smith react as Deville Smith is named the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic MVP after their championship game against Mississippi State Monday, Dec. 23 2013, at the Orleans Arena. UNLV won the game 82-66.

“He definitely prepared for this week,” Roscoe Smith said.

Then came the Rebels’ 21- point loss to UC Santa Barbara and a sprained MCL for Deville Smith. Initially, coach Dave Rice said he thought the junior would be out for a week or two. Instead, Deville Smith came back for the next game — a three-point victory against Omaha — and played nine minutes.

He clearly wasn’t back to 100 percent, but he was healthy enough to give UNLV minutes. The difference between that guy — the one capable of only a few mostly unremarkable possessions in a row — and the one people saw at the Orleans Arena is a Dec. 14 game at Southern Utah.

That’s when Deville Smith said he felt the knee was healthy again, and that was also the game he set a new season-high with eight points. That benchmark lasted just more than a week, and now the Rebels have a new toy to play with just in time for the holidays.

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UNLV forward Roscoe Smith's face gets slapped by Mississippi State guard I.J. Ready during their Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic game Monday, Dec. 23 2013, at the Orleans Arena.

“If he keeps this up, we’ll definitely be scary,” Roscoe Smith said.

The Rebels finished their four-week game perfectly by an average margin of 22 points and are riding a five-game winning streak into Christmas break. They’ll take a few days off and then come back Dec. 26 to prepare for a Dec. 28 home tilt against Cal State Fullerton, the team’s last game before Mountain West play begins.

UNLV’s four losses are all to top 100 teams, while no victim of this current streak falls in that category. Still, the Rebels feel like the experience and confidence they gained from burying their opponents will help down the stretch.

“The competition might not be that high, but we still won each and every game,” Roscoe Smith said. “When we compete as hard as we can right now, it’s going to be a little bit easier for us once we do get into conference play.”

The Las Vegas Classic champions certainly appear to be a better team than they did a week or two ago, especially with Deville Smith and Christian Wood (seven points in 17 minutes) emerging as legitimate threats. But appearances can be deceiving. No one will actually know how good this team can be until they start taking road trips in Mountain West play.

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UNLV guard Deville Smith greets former Mississippi State teammate Tevin Moore after their Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic championship game Monday, Dec. 23 2013, at the Orleans Arena. UNLV won the game 82-66.

Those answers are yet to come. The one the Rebels got tonight is that there are few feelings better this early in the season than holding a gallon-sized trophy after beating an old team, and knowing all of your teammates were working hard to make it happen.

“That was one of our early Christmas presents for Deville,” Roscoe Smith said. “For him to get a chance to play Mississippi State and put it on them … it was a great accomplishment.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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