Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Published Saturday, March 1, 2014 | noon
Updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 | 2:57 p.m.
UNLV 93, Air Force 67
Khem Birch registered 15 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks, leading UNLV to a dominating 93-67 victory today at Air Force. The Rebels stay alone in third place in the conference standings heading into Saturday's home game against San Diego State.
Of all of Birch's stats, the most impressive may be that he missed only one shot, going 6-for-7. Roscoe Smith was also efficient down low, going 3-of-4 for 10 points with eight rebounds.
As a team UNLV (19-10, 10-6) shot an absurd 61.8 percent form the field and an even more absurd 66.7 percent behind the three-point line. The Rebels also won the rebounding battle 45-25 and controlled pretty much every other stat category, too.
Air Force (11-16, 5-11) shot 35.9 percent overall and 31 percent beyond the arc against UNLV's 2-3 zone defense. It became clear early on that the Falcons would need to catch fire from 3 in order to stay close, and once that didn't happen it was pretty much all over. The Falcons never got closer than 11 in the second half.
Seven Rebels finished in double-figure scoring, with Deville Smith matching Birch's 15 points. Jelan Kendrick also had a solid game with 10 points and six rebounds.
Check lasvegassun.com later tonight for a full report from the Rebels' victory.
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, COLO. — Clune Arena, small bandbox that it is, often punches above its weight class in terms of home-court advantages. Not this year.
Air Force (11-15, 5-10) is a half-game above 10th place and has lost five of its last six home games, including the last four in a row. And yet, history suggests UNLV (18-10, 9-6) isn’t going to have the easy trip that some other teams may have enjoyed here.
For example, go back less than two months to the Rebels’ home seven-point loss to these same Falcons. Or look at the last four meetings overall, which has both teams at 2-2. One of those UNLV wins was in overtime and the other came after two of Air Force’s best players — Michael Lyons and Taylor Broekhuis — left with first-half injuries.
Go back to UNLV coach Dave Rice’s first trip to Clune and you’ll see another narrow overtime victory. So yes, this is not a good Air Force team, but that doesn’t mean the Rebels can afford to be mediocre.
Today's game tips at 1 p.m. Las Vegas time and will stream on ESPN3.com.
Whether it’s the constant cuts, slowed-down pace or the strange affect Clune traditionally has on opponents despite seating less than 6,000 and rarely filling up, UNLV will need to be on its game today.
One thing I’d love to see, and the more I think about it the more likely I think it is, is extended use of UNLV’s zone defense. We saw that for basically the first time all season on Wednesday and it seems like it would be an appropriate counter to what the Falcons want to do, which is clear the lane and then find an open man moving toward the basket.
I’ve said this before, but the most important thing the zone does is keep junior forward Khem Birch near the basket. He’s already the program’s second-leading shot blocker and currently ranks third in the country in blocks per game (3.7).
Birch was solid in the last meeting but UNLV’s problem was a familiar one — it chucked too many 3-pointers. The Rebels shot 56.2 percent on 2s but 28.6 (6-for-21) on 3s, which combined with inadequate defense did them in.
The zone could combat that issue this time around. I’d be surprised if UNLV doesn’t use it at all, but as far as how much your guess is as good as mine. That’s just one element of today’s game but it could go a long ways in determining the Rebels’ opinion of Clune Arena this year.
Bern’s prediction: The line has moved from UNLV by five or six to four or four and a half most places. I tend to agree. This place is rough on the Rebels, though I do think they’ll manage to win. UNLV 67, Air Force 65
Season: ATS 17-11, O/U 19-7-2