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Graney: Rebels look terrific, but day belongs to Robert Smith

On a day UNLV honored the great Robert Smith, its basketball team played one of its finest games of the season.

Against Colorado State. Again.

The Rebels just keep getting better and better under first-year coach Kevin Kruger. Better now than last month. Better last month than the previous one. And so on.

They whipped the Rams on Saturday, this time by a 72-51 final before 6,153 fans at the Thomas & Mack Center.

It was Jan. 28 when the Rebels won 88-74 in Fort Collins.

Colorado State is 21-4. Two of those losses are to UNLV.

“We’ve always been talented,” said senior guard Bryce Hamilton, again the team’s leading player with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. “That part hasn’t changed. We just can’t get satisfied.”

Defense talks

This UNLV team can play with anyone in the Mountain West. This one can contend come conference tournament time. The one now healthy. The one, most importantly, that defends.

UNLV hasn’t lost when outrebounding an opponent and did so 45-24 Saturday.

Think about it: Colorado State ranks first among league teams in scoring, shooting, 3-point shooting and margin of victory.

It shot 35 percent Saturday, 23 percent on 3s and was held to 26 points below its average. It had 24 points at halftime and 30 with 12 minutes left.

“We talk about it all the time,” Kruger said. “The game plan is simple but not easy. When we’re this locked in defensively, our offense is pretty good. When we’re disheveled defensively, it affects us.

“When our defense gets us going early, we’re a little more tuned in and relaxed. The guys just keep working and grinding. They couldn’t have had a better intent the last few days (in practice).”

And yet his team’s impressive showing was really a sidebar to a more important moment.

Arm raised high

It was October 2019 when a massive stroke struck one of the greatest point guards in UNLV history. The journey back continues to be hard and laborious for Robert Smith.

“You talk about someone who always walked in with a smile on,” Kruger said. “No matter what was going on, you bounced out of your seat when you saw him and gave him a hug.

“He was always incredibly nice and pleasant to be around. That big ol’ smile is one you don’t forget. It was special for everyone involved.”

UNLV played a basketball game Saturday. It beat Colorado State by 21. The Rebels were really, really good. But the afternoon shouldn’t be remembered for any result.

A jersey No. 10 is now retired and hangs from the rafters, long overdue, more than four decades after Smith’s final game with the Rebels. He finally has a proper home among the program’s all-time best talents.

No player was ever respected more by teammates. None more loyal or loved.

Smith will keep fighting, to be sure. Giving up isn’t an option.

He was wheeled to center court at halftime by several family members and welcomed with a standing ovation, past high school and college teammates having offered their congratulations via video as part of the celebration.

And as his jersey was unveiled up high, after he had wiped away countless tears, Robert Smith raised his right arm as a familiar chant broke out from within the darkness of an emotional arena … “Rebels! Rebels! Rebels!”

And he wiped away more tears. And family members hugged him.

And his former radio partner for UNLV broadcasts, Jon Sandler, dabbed his own eyes from the media section above as he looked down on his dear friend.

And the crowd continued to cheer amid the darkness.

And his right arm remained high.

Yes. Finally.

His jersey is where it has always belonged.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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