Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 | 11:30 p.m.
- Return of the Mack: Rebels back at home to face ‘annoying’ Panthers
- Rebels have plenty to learn from in 62-60 victory at UTEP
- After a year off, Birch excited to make his UNLV debut against UTEP
- Addition of Birch this week adds instant intrigue to the Rebels
- Rebels satisfied with lopsided victory against La Verne
- Freshman guard will make UNLV debut Thursday night against La Verne
- UNLV-TV students will help broadcast La Verne game on VegasTV
- Moser expected to return from elbow injury in about a month
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
Ever since Anthony Bennett's stellar debut last month, and probably even from the day he committed to UNLV, stopping him should have been the No. 1 priority in every Rebel opponent’s scouting report this season. Right there at the top in all caps: CONTAIN BENNETT OR WE WON’T BE IN IT.
Not only did Northern Iowa (6-5) not execute its plan to contain the Canadian big man, the Panthers will likely be featured prominently in the Bennett highlight tape that should air during June’s NBA draft. Bennett keyed a critical 14-5 run into halftime and finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in No. 21 UNLV’s 73-59 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“He was terrific tonight,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “He was unselfish and he had energy.”
Bennett strutted and he yelled and he dominated with a sneer that gave way to a smile. When Bennett gets going everything else opens up for the Rebels. On Wednesday night in front of 14,484 fans that included a great performance from fellow Canadian Khem Birch, who had 11 points and nine rebounds in his second game. The duo combined to shoot 10-for-18 from the floor, efficient production that hints at a great low post combination moving forward.
“We’re ready to make the next step,” Rice said.
UNLV’s three starting guards — Anthony Marshall, Katin Reinhardt and Bryce Dejean-Jones — shot a combined 7-for-23 from the field but it never really impacted the game. That’s because the trio never let their shooting affect their defensive effort, Rice said, and the inside guys more than made up for the production.
“Our big guys make the game easy,” Marshall said.
The Rebels’ defensive game plan called for the posts to switch on ball screens, often leaving UNI guards Anthony James and Deon Mitchell at the top of the key with a big like Birch or Bennett defending them. That looked like it could be an advantage for the quicker guards but the Panthers rarely attacked the matchup, and when they did the bigs denied UNI with their feet as well as blocks. It was a good scheme that made UNI look like a team playing too far above its head.
“Our versatility on the defensive end makes us a difficult matchup,” Rice said.
The Rebels are pretty versatile at the other end, too, and the best example is Bennett, who is clearly in the conversation for national player of the year.
His first made shot was a 3-pointer, then came back-to-back jaw-dropping layups that saw Bennett start 20 feet from the basket and finish with finesse at the basket after weaving his way through defenders. And for good measure Bennett capped his first-half barrage by storming down the lane, snatching a pass that may have been intended for an open shooter in the corner and slammed it in with one of his familiar one-handed power dunks.
Bennett’s now a daily fixture on several national sites, radio shows and TV talking points. His profile gets bigger by the day, yet Bennett still says he couldn’t care less. Accolades are nice but they don’t matter, he has said since before the season. What does matter is the next game, the next practice and the next minute.
“The returning guys tell me to focus on the now,” Bennett said.
That’s been working fine thus far so there’s no need to change anything right now. While the admittedly shy Bennett will have a harder and harder time hiding from media attention, the features and pictures haven’t changed how he plays. He’s dominant on offense, clearly, but Bennett’s also getting better at passing out of the post.
UTEP played him more physically than UNI did, Bennett said, and whenever he did get trapped Wednesday he made some nice kickouts that would have been assists in hockey (the pass before the pass on a made shot). He’s also more than happy to get out the way and let Birch shine after sitting out for a year. The Rebels can expect even more of that going forward, Bennett said.
“(Birch) will get rebounds, he’ll block shots, he’s fast, he’ll get steals and he can score, so basically everything that we need,” Bennett said.
The Panthers’ second-half push never got them closer than 13, another solid improvement for a Rebels team that has given up some leads. UNLV got out and ran but it also pulled up occasionally and played well in half-court sets, which Rice said should put to rest any notion that his team can’t win half-court basketball games.
What’s even more certain after this game, though, is that the Rebels most resemble the dangerous team they want to be when Bennett crumples up an opponent’s scouting report and puts another bullet point on his résumé.