SAN DIEGO – What’s that old saying about desperate times requiring desperate measures?
After watching his team blow a 10-point lead midway through the second half to San Diego State here Wednesday night, second-year Dave Rice knew he had to do something big for his Runnin’ Rebels to finally snap a five-game Mountain West road losing streak.
So he went small. And the result was arguably the biggest victory of his coaching tenure — right up there with last season’s dramatic upset of No. 1 North Carolina at the Orleans Arena – this one a hard-fought 82-75 victory over No. 15 San Diego State at Viejas Arena.
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With 26 scouts from 19 NBA teams in attendance, Rice made the bold move to put his two top NBA prospects, forwards Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser, on the bench down the stretch and use a four-guard lineup to try and counter San Diego State’s spread-the-court and beat-you-off-the dribble lineup that had carved up UNLV’s defense in the second half.
And it worked thanks in big part to the gutty effort of senior point guard Anthony Marshall (20 points, eight rebounds, five assists) and the intimidating inside presence of 6-8 sophomore forward Khem Birch, who blocked five shots and altered numerous others while also coming up with a huge tip-in with 2:25 to go that increased UNLV’s lead to 76-73.
Sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds and 6-3 senior guard Justin Hawkins added four points and five rebounds while playing power forward down the stretch as the Rebels (15-3, 2-1) picked up their first victory in five seasons here.
Reigning Mountain West player of the year Jamaal Franklin scored 27 points and former Findlay Prep star Winston Shepard, playing point-forward, added a career-high 18 for the Aztecs (14-3, 2-1).
The Rebels took a 76-73 lead on Birch’s putback with 2:25 remaining. Franklin missed a contested shot on a drive into the lane, and Hawkins rebounded a missed jumper by Dejean-Jones and scored inside to stretch UNLV’s edge to five.
Shepard’s jumper closed the gap to 78-75 with 1:08 left. Birch, who finished with 12 points, then grabbed Marshall’s miss and scored with 25 seconds to go to close it out. Dejean-Jones added a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left.
“We had to go small to match what they were doing,” Rice, who improved to 41-12 all-time as UNLV’s coach, said of the move to bench Bennett and Moser. “They’re team guys. They were cheering as hard as the rest of our guys do when they’re in the game. It was just simply a matchup situation for us. I felt at that time we needed to make stops. … I choose to make the decision to match them on the defensive end.”
It worked but only because Marshall, so exhausted with five minutes to go he could barely make it back to the bench without assistance during one break, managed to gut it out and help carry his team to victory in crunch time.
“At the end of the day it was just about being tough enough to make enough plays at the end of the game,” Rice said. “It was a great toughness win for us.”
“We took a real big step today,” Hawkins said. “We just gutted it out at the end.”
Bennett and Moser each finished with nine points.
The Rebels have little time to enjoy this one. UNLV travels to Colorado State (14-3, 1-1), which handed them a 66-59 rush-the-court defeat last season in Fort Collins and is even better this year, on Saturday night at Moby Arena.