Khem Birch said it was not a very pleasant three days for the UNLV basketball team following Wednesday night’s lackluster 71-56 loss at Air Force.
“It was real tough coming off that bad loss,” the 6-foot-9 sophomore said. “We wanted to prove to everyone that we’re still the same team … that we’re still getting better.”
The Runnin’ Rebels took a big step in that regard Saturday night before a sellout crowd of 18,577 at the Thomas & Mack Center with a hard-fought 72-70 victory over defending Mountain West co-champ San Diego State, completing a regular season series sweep of the Aztecs for the first time since 2008.
Anthony Bennett notched his 10th double-double of the season with 21 points and 12 rebounds and fellow Canadian Birch added 16 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots as UNLV (19-7, 6-5) moved into a tie for third place with San Diego State (18-7, 6-5) and Air Force (15-9, 6-5) in the Mountain West.
Those who witnessed the Air Force fiasco may be shocked to find out that the Rebels actually won this one with tough defense, rebounding and some much overdue grit.
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Bennett, who found himself on the bench for much of the second half of the Air Force loss and part of the first half Saturday night for his defensive shortcomings, turned it up a big notch in the second half, scoring 17 points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking two shots in the final 18 minutes alone.
He also was part of perhaps the key series of the game, blocking a shot by former Findlay Prep star Winston Shepard and then finishing on the other end with a monster dunk to increase UNLV’s lead to 65-57 with 6:08 to go.
What made the play so memorable was that Bennett missed his initial dunk attempt, missed a second try but kept battling and finally jammed home his third try while being fouled by Shepard. (See the play in the video highlights above).
“Coach talked to me at halftime and said, ‘You’ve got to take pride on defense and everything will start going your way,’ ” Bennett said. “And so I did.”
One could argue that more effort was expended on that one play by the Rebels than in the entire game at Air Force.
“We played with heart and passion,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “The key for our team is to play with heart and play with passion like we did in the second half.”
Bennett seemed to set the tone early when he went chest-to-chest with reigning conference MVP Franklin (see video highlights). The message was clearly sent that the Rebels weren’t going to get pushed around this evening like they had at Colorado Springs.
Point guard Anthony Marshall, who finished with six assists and four rebounds, also brought the crowd to its feet – nervously at first – when he went flying over the press table chasing a loose ball (see video highlights). And guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who scored eight points and had three steals, did an outstanding job defensively at the end of the game on Franklin, who finished with 11 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
After Chase Tapley, who finished with a game-high 22 points including 4-of-8 3-pointers, cut the Rebel lead to one, 71-70, the Aztecs got the ball back following a UNLV turnover with 16 seconds left with a chance to win the game.
Franklin waved off a ball screen at the top of the key and decided to go one-on-one against Dejean-Jones, who slid his feet, kept Franklin in front of him on a drive up the right side of the key and forced Franklin to shuffle his feet for a travel (see video highlights).
Birch, who finished with a game-high five blocks, would have likely had No. 6 if not for the whistle.
“I heard the whistle and I thought it was a foul at first,” Birch said. “But then I saw the ref and I was so happy.”
After Katin Reinhardt sank one of two free throws to make it 72-70 with a little over a second remaining, the Aztecs had one last chance. But JJ O’Brien’s long pass was swatted away by Justin Hawkins. (See video highlights).
O’Brien, who had 15 points in the first half, was held scoreless after that when the Rebels decided put Birch on him defensively.
“I used my length,” Birch, who is two inches taller and has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, said. “I prevented him from getting (the ball) inside a lot.”
San Diego State, which led 40-34 at halftime, lost for the first time in 31 games when leading at halftime.
“We put ourselves in position to win and we just didn’t finish it,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said.
UNLV also got big contributions off the bench from Mike Moser (nine points, four rebounds, two steals) and Hawkins (seven points, two steals).
Check out the UNLV postgame interviews in the video below.