Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012 | 11:30 p.m.
The answer says nothing and everything at the same time, its simplicity complicated by the possible implications for the 21st-ranked Rebels.
In his third game for UNLV, sophomore forward Khem Birch played 29 minutes and scored 20 points on 7-of-8 shooting, plus 6-for-8 at the free-throw line, grabbed eight rebounds, blocked six shots and dished out three assists with one turnover. It was the best in a bushel full of great offensive performances in UNLV’s 89-74 victory against Canisius (8-3) on Saturday night in the Thomas & Mack Center in front of 14,533 fans.
The questioner looked at that stat line and put forth a remark that would sound crazy if it didn’t make so much sense. Is this the best you can do?
“I have no idea,” Birch said.
And he’s right. It seems ridiculous to anticipate these types of games from him every night, but in reality it’s only Birch’s third game with the Rebels (11-1) and his 13th Division I game overall, including his time at Pitt. No one knows exactly what to expect, including Birch, who has been saying since the preseason that anything he did on offense would be a bonus. He was as surprised as anyone.
“I didn’t think it would translate to games this early,” Birch said.
The production is due largely to the amount of time he’s spent after practice in the past year, working overtime with coaches to develop a post game. Birch has said that when he arrived at Pitt he didn’t even know how to drop step, the result of his ability to beat players in high school and the AAU circuit on pure athleticism. Pair that natural agility with precise moves and he could eventually rival the arsenal of Anthony Bennett, who led the Rebels with 21 points.
So good was UNLV on offense that you could argue no fewer than four Rebels played their best offensive games of the season. In addition to the two bigs, freshman Katin Reinhardt looked more comfortable than he has all year — 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, five assists and three steals — and he gave a lot of credit for that to senior Justin Hawkins, who scored all 12 of his points during the decisive 21-6 run in the middle of the second half.
As well as UNLV played, it still needed that shot in the arm to pull away from the Golden Griffins, who were led by junior Billy Baron’s 30 points.
Canisius cut its deficit to 57-54 with 12:52 remaining. Just prior to that Hawkins had entered the game with a message from UNLV coach Dave Rice.
“I kind of felt the game slipping,” Hawkins said. "Coach approached me and Anthony (Marshall) and said, ‘Someone’s got to make a play sooner or later.’ When I checked in I felt I had to do something on the defensive end and it just translated to offense.”
In addition to his 12 points, which included a made shot on an attempted alley-oop, Hawkins had two steals, two rebounds, one block and one assist during that stretch. It was similar to the impact he made at Portland, where his performance completely changed the momentum and helped UNLV eke out a victory.
This one didn’t come nearly that close because his teammates were also dialed in. The team shot 59.6 percent from the field, 46.2 percent behind the three-point line and 75 percent on free-throw attempts. Canisius is a tremendous 3-point shooting team, as it proved with a 13-for-29 performance, but the Golden Griffins couldn’t keep pace on fast breaks (UNLV 26-10) or in the paint (UNLV 44-24). And what generated a lot of those points, as it often does when the Rebels are at their best, was defense, where they blocked 13 shots, by far the most in any game of the Rice era.
“If your guy’s driving by you, you can see Khem coming and you can let (your man) go a little bit,” Reinhardt said. “We don’t want to make any bad decisions in terms of just letting the ball go to the basket but if we’re late we can tell that if we can force them straight to the basket then he’ll block that shot. We have that kind of presence there and it’s evolving throughout the games as we progress.”
That part of Birch’s game was all but expected. After all, this isn’t even a new career high in blocks; it ties what Birch did more than a year ago with Pitt against Robert Morris.
So while his defense — both how he plays and what that means for how the rest of the team can guard their men — is great, it’s the offense that has the Rebels especially excited. Birch and Bennett, the Canadian comrades and fellow McDonald’s All-Americans, not only work well together, they make each other better.
Can Birch sustain an offensive performance anywhere close to what he did Saturday? Will the pieces all operate as smoothly when junior Mike Moser reenters the rotation?
The Rebels have no idea, though this game did offer a view of the brightest end of the spectrum.
“We saw more than glimpses tonight of how good a basketball team we have the potential to be,” Rice said.