Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 | 11:50 p.m.
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SAN DIEGO — Stories about toughness don’t usually include asking to be taken out of the game multiple times. Of course, stories about the Rebels in Viejas Arena don’t usually include a UNLV victory.
This one’s got both.
UNLV point guard Anthony Marshall looked to the bench multiple times in the final eight minutes, desperate for a breather. He got two of them that totaled 40 seconds. When he was on the court Marshall scored five of his team-high 20 points in that final stretch and grabbed four rebounds, including the final one that sealed an 82-75 victory. It was the first time the seniors, including Marshall, had won here.
“I know the last couple of games (at Viejas), it’s come down to the wire,” Marshall said. “We just weren’t mentally tough enough to get those wins. To get one here means a lot.”
One of the biggest questions facing the Rebels (15-3, 2-1) has been whether they could go into a hostile environment and make game-winning plays in close games. They already had the Cal game, but nothing against a team near the caliber of the 15th-ranked Aztecs (14-3, 2-1). That this victory came on the same type of plays that sunk UNLV at New Mexico last week only makes it more satisfying.
Trailing by three with just more than two minutes left, SDSU grabbed two offensive rebounds on one possession. Giving up those plays, UNLV coach Dave Rice has said, is the most frustrating thing for him to watch.
The Rebels survived that because Justin Hawkins went up for an aggressive defensive rebound under the 2-minute mark. Hawkins then flipped the play on the Aztecs, corralling Bryce Dejean-Jones’ missed 3-point attempt and putting it right back in for a five-point lead.
“It says everything we want to know about toughness,” Rice said.
It may seem odd that Hawkins was so near the basket on back-to-back possessions. It seems that way because it is, as Rice employed an extremely small lineup in the final minutes that deployed the 6-foot-3 senior guard as the team’s power forward.
“They already know I’m going to do whatever it takes to win,” Hawkins said. “So when he said, ‘You’ve got to go to the 4’ I’m just going to go to the 4 and I’m going to do everything in my power.”
The logic goes like this: Rice was tired of the Aztecs’ perimeter players like Jamaal Franklin (27 points) and Findlay Prep grad Winston Shepard (18 points) so easily getting into the lane. The duo combined for 22 free-throw attempts, which was more than UNLV had as a team, because they kept slipping past the Rebels’ first line of defense and drawing contact. Rice countered this by sitting Mike Moser for the final 7:06 and Anthony Bennett for the last 3:43.
The lineup in the final minutes was Marshall, Katin Reinhardt, Dejean-Jones, Hawkins and Khem Birch. It was a strange configuration that may have worked as much for its surprise as anything else. Much like a surprising Quintrell Thomas-Savon Goodman first-half pairing because of others’ foul trouble, the Aztecs probably didn’t have this final lineup in the scouting report.
“We were having a hard time getting San Diego State stopped the whole game,” Rice said. “I chose to match them and our guys stepped up on the defensive end.”
Shepard cut the lead back to three right after Hawkins’ putback and it seemed clear Marshall would be the one to come up with a response. Against Air Force on Saturday, Marshall took just one shot and dished out 12 assists. That felt more like a response to criticism than a complete change of style, and that bore itself out against San Diego State.
In the second half, Marshall didn’t make any assists but he did snap UNLV’s six-minute drought without a field goal by making back-to-back shots. The toll from the physicality of the game shown on his face as he looked to the bench for a respite that came for mere seconds. You could tell that this was going to be another situation where Marshall put the game in his hands.
This isn’t a perfect story, though. What it is is an example of progress in small doses.
Marshall’s runner with 30 seconds left clanged off the backward. That could have led to a potential game-tying shot at the other end and in a lot of UNLV games that’s what would happen. What did happen was Birch, well positioned just in front of the basket, grabbed the offensive rebound and made the easy layup for a five-point lead that sent a surprising number of people for the exits.
“I didn’t even know it was coming down to me,” Birch said. “I just got the rebound, used my left hand and ran down the court to play defense.”
That was Birch’s second offensive rebound and putback in the final 2:25 and it was effectively the game-winner, with only a Franklin turnover and a pair of Dejean-Jones free throws remaining to send the Rebels home victorious.
The reason Rice left Birch on the floor as the lone big man at the end speaks to the level of his performance. Birch finished with 12 points, five rebounds and five blocks, four of those coming in the second half. That happens to be when Franklin started to struggle from the floor, too, as he went 3-for-12 in the final 20 minutes.
“(Franklin) likes to use his right hand to go to the basket, that’s what Coach told me before the game,” Birch said. “Every time he drove to the basket I left my man and came over from the weak side to alternate or block it.”
The Rebels had a plan and it worked pretty well, getting them a 10-point second-half lead. When things started getting away from them, Rice made changes that looked strange yet led to a win. Most importantly, the Rebels made game-winning plays, the kind that have so often escaped their grasp at Viejas and road arenas throughout the Mountain West.
Now that the Aztecs are officially staying put in the league, UNLV will have countless chances to come back to this arena and write a similar story. This doesn’t guarantee anything for the Rebels, especially with a trip to Colorado State looming Saturday.
What it does is show that UNLV can win a close game on the road in this league. Not that it will every time, just that it can. And that’s good enough for tonight.
“I think this is a good start for us,” Marshall said.