Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 | 11 p.m.
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This game wasn’t one to reflect on so much as it was just something to move past.
The Rebels (12-2) looked off-kilter, then OK, then bad again and eventually they were good enough to come away from the Thomas & Mack Center with a 74-52 victory against Chicago State (4-13).
UNLV committed 21 turnovers and shot 5-for-19 from the three-point line, though that’s not as bad as it looks because most of those attempts were open looks that didn’t fall. The Rebels were eventually able to pull away because they were simply the better team inside.
Anthony Bennett finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and three steals while Khem Birch bounced back from a rough weekend to record his second career double-double and first for UNLV, tallying 13 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
“North Carolina affected me a lot and gave me a reality check,” Birch said.
Against UNC, Birch said he was playing too fast, which resulted in four turnovers and an altogether forgettable performance. He’s in game shape now, so the only thing that will limit him in the future will be his performance, because UNLV coach Dave Rice said Birch’s role may continue to expand in the near future.
Whether that means he’ll start or not Rice wouldn’t say, and it really doesn’t matter much. Birch has played more minutes than starting center Quintrell Thomas each of the past four games. He basically plays starters’ minutes already — Birch’s average is up to 21.8 minutes per game — and his insertion into the action as the sixth or seventh man is a change of pace for which the opponent must adjust.
Katin Reinhardt scored 12 points for the Rebels, who played without junior forward Mike Moser. Moser is medically cleared to play but Rice wanted to give him some more time off from his dislocated elbow, and his return date its still uncertain.
Rice gave a lot of credit to the entire bench Thursday. Justin Hawkins was only 1-for-5 from the floor but he did have six assists and three rebounds while Carlos Lopez-Sosa scored a season-high 11 points. UNLV led Chicago State in bench points 30-12, which was less important than the Rebels’ 49-27 advantage on the glass but still a key stat.
“Extremely happy with the lift we got off our bench,” Rice said. “… I thought (they) were sensational.”
Most of the postgame talk wasn’t about how this game went but how it impacted the Rebels as conference season nears. UNLV has a quick turnaround with another home game Saturday night at 7 against Cal State Bakersfield, and then the real fun begins.
UNLV opens Mountain West play Wednesday at New Mexico, the first of three extremely difficult road games that await the team in its first four conference games. After the Lobos, the Rebels return home to play Air Force (Jan. 12), then hit the road again at San Diego State (Jan. 16) and at Colorado State (Jan. 19). Rice’s bunch could play well and still come out of that stretch at 1-3.
The key to avoiding such a fate, Hawkins said, is to stay focused throughout these next few practices as well as Saturday’s game. That clearly wasn’t the case Thursday, as Chicago State pulled within 11 midway through the second half before finally bowing out.
The road has always been a different animal for the Rebels, especially places as hostile as the Pit in Albuquerque. UNLV’s youth has come to the forefront most often away from home and advice from the veterans is of little use.
“You can talk as much as you want but you won’t really know until you experience it, because everyone who’s been here knows when you go to New Mexico, right when you get off the bus you’ve got to meet Snake,” Hawkins said of the Lobos’ most well-known super fan (right). “… I just don’t want those guys to get caught up in the whole allure of the Pit, or playing at San Diego State or Colorado State.”
Said Birch, “I heard the Pit’s crazy. The fans can basically touch you when you’re on the sidelines.”
If the newcomers were rattled by the Dean Smith Center, they will get a whole new sense of what constitutes a raucous road environment starting next week. These games — the victory against Chicago State and the likely win against Cal State Bakersfield — and a few practices are all UNLV has left to get ready for league play in what’s arguably the second-best conference in the country. It may not be enough, but it’s all the time they have.
The Rebels will need their newcomers to transition well to league play to have any chance of coming out on top. Whether they’re prepared to do so or not, well, UNLV will soon find out.
“Hopefully I’ll be ready,” Birch said. “I know I will, but I’m not guaranteeing anything.”