With his team clinging to a sloppy 29-28 lead over Portland State at halftime of its season opener Friday night, UNLV coach Dave Rice wrote two numbers on the chalkboard in the Rebel locker room.
“I said this is the game: 23-15,” Rice said. “That’s 23 rebounds for Portland State and 15 for us. And that’s inexcusable.”
Khem Birch was obviously paying attention.
Although the 6-foot-9, 220-pound junior forward had played a solid first half scoring nine points, he totally dominated the paint – and the game – over the final 20 minutes when he grabbed 14 of his career-high 17 rebounds and UNLV pulled away for a 67-48 victory before a crowd of 13,148 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Birch also finished with 13 points and four blocks and altered a handful of others as the Rebels held Portland State to just 31 percent shooting (19-of-61) while forcing 20 turnovers.
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Hard-nosed UConn transfer Roscoe Smith also had a double-double (16 points, 10 boards) in his official UNLV debut while Fresno State transfer Kevin Olekaibe added 14 points, including back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the second half that broke the game open. Freshman guard Kendall Smith also scored in double-figures (10 points) while JC transfer Jelan Kendrick had a game-high four steals to go along with five points.
Still, it was the inside play of Birch, the reigning Mountain West defensive player of the year, that turned this one around.
“No disrespect to Portland State – they’re a very good team – but that team should not be outrebounding us,” Birch said when asked his reaction to Rice’s halftime message. “So I went out there aggressive and out-jumped my opponents.”
“Second half, how many of those rebounds did he say, ‘Nope, that’s mine’ and he just went about three feet above everyone else and got the ball,” Rice said. “You talk about a team guy that everybody respects, that’s Khem Birch.”
Birch also did an excellent job of dribbling the ball up-court like a guard on the fast break after several of his boards.
“When I rebound the ball and I push it, it also makes the big men tired,” he said.
Birch sat out UNLV’s exhibition against Adams State on Tuesday because of turf toe to his left big toe and limped back to the bench near the end of the game for a media timeout.
“During practice it was (bothering me) but before the game I had so much adrenaline I didn’t feel it until the last four minutes,” Birch said. “It’s getting better. It’s at about 80-percent right now.”
Smith also had a big game inside, finishing in double-digits in rebounds with 10, just two off his career-high of 12 set against Louisville in 2011 while at UConn.
“I thought that Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith were just fantastic inside,” Rice said.
Besides the sluggish first half, the one glaring negative from the win once again came at the free throw line. UNLV connected on just 13-of-28 attempts, a miserable 46.4 percent.
“I’d prefer to talk about our 3-point percentage defense which at this point is leading the country,” Rice joked.
Portland State finished 0-for-7 behind the arc.
“The thing we’ve got to do moving forward is figure out the age-old question (which) is what do you do when you can’t make free throws?” Rice said. “Talk about it, not talk about it … have a free throw exorcism? I don’t have the answers right now but it’s a momentum-killer for us.”
Still, Rice felt there were plenty of positives to reflect on as the Rebels found a way to win convincingly without arguably their best player, guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who is sidelined indefinitely with a strained hamstring.
“It’s a very, very, very important win for us tonight,” Rice said. “You think about the progress that we’ve made from the Dixie game to the Adams State game to this game … we all know how much work we still have to do on
both ends of the floor … but it was a good team win for us tonight.”
The Rebels return to action on Tuesday night when they host UC Santa Barbara, a 76-50 winner over Hawaii Pacific on Friday, at 7 p.m.