Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, March 13, 2014 | 8:25 p.m.
Khem Birch didn’t hesitate. UNLV led by 10 with less than two minutes remaining, seemingly polishing off a Mountain West tournament quarterfinals victory, and there was a loose ball at the Rebels’ free-throw line.
Despite limping around for most of today’s game, Birch dove to the court with no regard for his hip flexor injury and only the will to compete on his mind. Birch was in visible pain for pretty much all 34 minutes he played yet he put his body on the line several times without regard for how it may affect him moving forward.
“I didn’t want to regret that at the end of the season,” Birch said. “I was just thinking about how it could have been my last game (this year).”
Thanks to his effort and the production from the two guys UNLV was missing last weekend, this wasn’t his last game. But it didn’t come as easily as it should have with that lead.
UNLV survived a scare against Wyoming for a 71-67 victory that sets up the game every Rebel on the team and in the stands wanted to see. At 6 p.m. Friday, the Rebels will play in the semifinals against No. 1 seed San Diego State, which earlier today set a tournament record for margin of victory with a 34-point beatdown against Utah State.
“We want this game,” said Roscoe Smith, who lifted UNLV with 18 points and 13 rebounds. “… We know we can beat them. There’s no ands or buts in our heads; no, we know we can beat these guys.”
The Rebels scored only seven points in the first 10 minutes today. Later they used a 14-3 run to pull away and build a 13-point lead in the final four minutes. Yet barely a minute after Birch went to the floor for that loose ball, Wyoming trailed by only one.
It all happened in about 40 seconds. Starting with Nathan Sobey’s dunk to cut the deficit to 65-57 with about 1:04 remaining, the Rebels committed a turnover and then missed four consecutive free throws. By the time they finally made one, it was close again, and Jerron Granberry responded with an and-one to make it a one-point game.
The problems at the free-throw line and overall awful late-game execution are familiar to anyone who has watched UNLV this season. The Rebels survived, which is the most important part, but it inspires little confidence in their abilities to make Friday end differently than the first two rounds against the Aztecs.
“It’s disappointing because all year we have struggled down the stretch like that,” Birch said. “But I’m not going to be worried about that. Tomorrow, I’m just going to be worried about San Diego.”
In his return from suspension, Bryce Dejean-Jones led UNLV with 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting. After a nifty baseline jumper in the second half, he yelled to the crowd about being unstoppable, although in these teams’ last meeting he was hardly that. Dejean-Jones scored seven points on 1-for-7 shooting with three turnovers before storming out of the arena, which led to his one-game suspension.
Asked if he was looking forward to the rematch, Dejean-Jones didn’t hesitate. Like everyone else, this is the matchup he wanted.
“Absolutely. Losing never goes well with myself, nor does it with the team,” he said. “We understand we have a tough challenge coming up tomorrow, but we’re ready for it.”
Wyoming’s Josh Adams torched the Rebels for 18 points in the first half, including a ridiculous double-clutch dunk against Birch, but then was held mostly quiet in the second half. Sobey and Granberry scored 18 points each, although only four Cowboys scored at all.
This game shouldn’t have been this difficult for UNLV. Of course, with a few more made free throws it probably ends as a double-digit victory.
Either way, the big concern moving into the semifinals, other than San Diego State as a whole, is Birch’s health. He underwent a precautionary MRI on Wednesday night that revealed no damage.
“It’s just a pain tolerance situation,” Rice said. “It’s easy for me to say it because I’m not the one with the hip flexor injury. He’s in a great deal of pain, yet he hates to lose.”
Roscoe Smith’s return to the lineup was huge for UNLV, owing as much to his energy as his production. But he can only help so much. Birch is a different animal on the block, something neither freshman Christian Wood nor senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa can replicate.
Not only is Birch a tremendous athlete — he finished with eight points, nine rebounds, four assists and a block — but he makes plays like diving for a loose ball when the smart play is probably to conserve himself.
The Rebels didn’t even corral that ball. It hardly matters.
“He’s a warrior,” said Rice.
If Birch is able to play 34 minutes like he did today, the Rebels like their chances. And under the bright lights of semifinal night at the Mountain West tournament, it’s hard to imagine Birch watching from the sidelines.
“It’s going to be one of the best games in the Mountain West this year,” Birch said.