Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 | 8:15 p.m.
Following an embarrassing road loss, its fourth in a row, Las Vegas Sun reporters Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern discuss the state of the Rebels as they prepare to host rival San Diego State on Saturday.
- Box score: UNLV 72, SDSU 70
- BLOG: Rebels get tough in 72-70 home victory against San Diego State
- Live color blog: UNLV hosts S.D. State, and is there to be a ‘Harlem Shake’ at this sold-out game?
- UNLV-San Diego State rivalry full of memorable showdowns
- Neither Rebels nor Aztecs where they expected to be entering Saturday’s game
- Mountain West basketball tournament to stay in Las Vegas through 2016
- Tarkanian a finalist for induction into basketball hall of fame
- UNLV Extras: Examining the reasons for the team’s constant road struggle
- UNLV coach expects his program to ‘grow up’ after no-show at Air Force
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
Maybe this will be the victory that changes the UNLV basketball team’s fortunes.
The Rebels trailed visiting San Diego State Saturday by 11 points in the first half, but responded, even though their backs were against the wall, in rallying for a 72-70 victory. They showed a toughness that has been glaringly missing — especially on the road — in the past few weeks and weren’t going to be pushed around on their home court.
A desperate UNLV team in a so-called must-win game showed they have plenty of fight left.
Anthony Bennett scored eight straight points to open the second half and the Rebels rolled up their sleeves for a gutsy, hard-fought win. While it wasn’t pretty late — UNLV nearly blew a seven-point lead with three minutes to play and needed a pair of defensive stops to prevail — the victory gives the Rebels some much-needed momentum.
Here’s all you need to know about the odds UNLV faced in their rally: San Diego State had won 30 straight games and were 18-0 this season when leading at halftime.
They couldn’t duplicate the effort against a UNLV team that showed its season still could work itself out. Even though they nearly surrendered the late lead, the Rebels remained confident and pulled out the win. It’s a confidence that always isn’t there.
When the schedule was released, this game was immediately circled as the most important home contest of the season. It was a rivalry game and both teams expected to be prominent nationally. And, fittingly, it was the first sellout.
Then, when UNLV’s season started to head south the past three weeks with inconsistent play and embarrassing road defeats to teams they had no business struggling against, the rivalry took on a different meaning. It became a must-win to help stop the bleeding, and according some diehard fans in panic mode, to salvage the season.
The season, however, is far from being salvaged. Remember last Saturday?
That’s when the Rebels played one of their best games in downing Mountain West Conference leader New Mexico. I was fooled with the Rebels’ performance, writing their problems — they were humiliated by lowly Fresno State, after all — were starting to be fixed.
But the Rebels’ laid an egg Wednesday at Air Force, trailing by more than 20 points and suffering a loss that negated all the positives of the New Mexico win.
So, yes, tonight’s victory is obviously a good thing in the uphill battle to equal those lofty preseason expectations. It’s also good for the NCAA Tournament resume.
Eventually, however, the Rebels are going to have to figure out ways to duplicate the effort away from the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s mind-boggling that a team this talented can be this awful when playing outside the friendly confines — they have a 4-6 record on the road, and were lucky in come away with wins in two of the four victories.
Defeats next Saturday at Wyoming or in two weeks at UNR (what a shame that will be) would continue the downward spiral on this season disappointment.
Here are some more observations from the game:
Anthony Bennett took over: Anthony Bennett was clearly in a shooting hot streak, connecting on three consecutive shots, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the first two minutes of the second half. In the blink of an eye, a six-point halftime deficit turned into a two-point UNLV lead. Then, Bennett didn’t take a shot for about six minutes, and the Rebels against trailed by six. Of course, he drained that shot, making a 3-pointer to make the deficit 54-51. Unbelievable. One of the golden rules in basketball is to continue giving the ball to the player with a hot hand. When that player in a McDonald’s All-American and likely NBA Draft lottery pick, he needs to be the first, second and third options each time down the court. Bennett, who finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds, is the type of player that can take over a game and single-handedly help UNLV change its fortunes. The others need to give him the opportunity to carry the team on his back.
Hustle, determination the difference: They dove for loose balls, blocked shots, boxed out for rebounds and played with passion. They came up with steals, forced San Diego State into turnovers and finally started to look like a team everyone expected them to be. Sure, it was just one game. But the Rebels’ effort in the second half — playing to arguably save their season — was refreshing in the season of ups and downs. Even in the defeats, the talent on the UNLV roster was never disputed. It’s going to take a similar energy-level for that talent to reach its potential.
Speaking of McDonald’s All-Americans:Khem Birch was brilliant all night, connecting on 5-of-6 shots and 6-of-6 free throws to finish with 16 points. He couldn’t be contained on the inside in grabbing seven rebounds (four of the offensive variety) and blocking five shots. And with the game on the line, he blocked Jamaal Franklin’s attempt at a game-winning shot with seconds to play. Birch is another McDonald’s American and part of the talented core of first-year players still trying to find its groove. He played his best game as a Rebel Saturday. When Bennett and Birch control the interior like they did Saturday, UNLV is tough to beat.