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December 7, 2021

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Rebels fight for victory in latest chapter of great rivalry with SDSU

UNLV met its coach’s plea to play with passion and won the most important battles down the stretch in a 72-70 win

UNLV vs. San Diego State - Feb. 16, 2013

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Khem Birch blocks a shot by San Diego State J.J. O’Brien during their Mountain West Conference game Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack.

UNLV vs. SDSU: Feb. 16, 2013

UNLV forward Khem Birch celebrates as guard Justin Hawkins takes the ball while San Diego State guard Jamaal Franklin reacts to being called for travelling during San Diego Stat'e final possession Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack. UNLV won the game 72-70. Launch slideshow »

Midway through the second half of the latest chapter in a thrilling rivalry, this game got its signature play. After UNLV’s Bryce Dejean-Jones tipped the ball away from San Diego State’s Chase Tapley and a battle for the loose ball ensued. Nearly every player on the court dove and fought for the ball, and you get the feeling it took self-control for the players on the bench to stay there instead of joining the scrum.

That play brought the fans in a sold-out Thomas & Mack Center to their feet and ignited a furious surge to the finish, in which the Rebels built a 10-point lead and then had to survive on defense.

“That’s who we want to be,” UNLV’s Mike Moser said, “for more than that one play.”

UNLV (19-7, 6-5) won that particular battle and the rest of the major ones down the stretch of a 72-70 victory. This is the first time the Rebels have swept the regular season series against the Aztecs (18-7, 6-5) since 2008, and it’s the fourth two-point game in the last five meetings.

Right after the Rebels gained possession from a tie-up in that scrum, freshman Anthony Bennett hit a turnaround jumper in the lane, making him 5-for-5 in the second half to that point and giving UNLV a five-point lead. He pushed the lead to eight with 6:08 remaining on a possession memorable for his perseverance.

The rim twice denied Bennett’s dunk attempts, and each time he fought off Aztec defenders to eventually slam a two-handed finish while drawing a foul on former Findlay Prep teammate Winston Shepard.

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV forward Anthony Bennett dunks on San Diego State during their game Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. UNLV won the game 72-70 to sweep the regular season series.

The Aztecs’ leading scorers at halftime — J.J. O’Brien and Jamaal Franklin — scored only four combined points in the second half, all from Franklin. O’Brien started the game by attacking Bennett with a lot of success, but he couldn’t find the same shots the rest of the way.

“The coaches told me I’ve got to take pride in my defense,” Bennett said. UNLV coach Dave Rice, who said he felt very good at halftime despite trailing by six, added that Bennett’s success on defense made him more comfortable on offense. Bennett finished with a team-high 21 points and 12 rebounds while his Canadian compatriot Khem Birch scored 16 points on 5-for-6 shooting with seven rebounds and five blocks.

“Canada was in the house,” said Bennett, who watched fellow Canadian and former Rebel Joel Anthony perform the “Lights, please” part of the introduction.

The Aztecs, who lost starting point guard James Rahon to a shoulder sprain three minutes into the game, had built their lead on offensive rebounds and putbacks in the paint. Once the Rebels took those away they were left with either jump shots they had trouble hitting or drives to the lane that almost always ended with Bennett or Birch turning them away.

“The refs really let us play; we made it real physical once you got in the paint,” Moser said. “And that’s what happens when you’re going up against Khem. Trying to lay the ball up against him is just not possible.”

Despite the momentum clearly favoring the home team in the best environment the Mack has seen this season, Tapley essentially willed the Aztecs back into the game. In the final four minutes he was 3-for-3 from the field and scored 10 points, including a contested 3-pointer with 20 seconds left that cut the margin to one. A tie-up under the basket right after that gave SDSU possession with 16 seconds left and the deficit at only one.

“They’re going to give us their best game and we’re going to give them our best game,” Tapley said. “It’s become a great rivalry and every game comes down to the last three to five minutes.”

The percentage play for that final possession would have been to get Tapley a shot. Instead Franklin took the ball and challenged a UNLV defense that had been turning him away consistently in the second half. And the Rebels denied him once more.

With Dejean-Jones close on him, Franklin drove across the lane to the right, exactly where the scouting report said he would go.

“I was pretty sure he was going to drive to the right,” Birch said. “He drives to the right about 90 percent of the time.”

Franklin was called for traveling, and had the shot counted Birch was there to get a piece of it anyways. Franklin finished with 11 points (Tapley scored 22) and shot 2-for-8 in the second half.

“Last game (Franklin) got a lot of easy drives to the basket,” Moser said. “He wasn’t getting those this game and quite frankly he doesn’t shoot the ball that well so that wasn’t working for him either.”

Justin Hawkins swatted away the Aztecs’ final inbounds pass, sealing a victory the Rebels needed just as badly as they needed last week’s nine-point win against New Mexico. The evening was full of the desire and fire missing from UNLV’s road games.

“The only thing at this stage that we ask of our team is to play with the kind of heart and the kind of passion that we played with in the second half,” Rice said.

Plays like that scrum or Bennett battling all comers for each rebound until he could finally finish a dunk make fans believe in the Rebels’ resolve to fight.

“That epitomizes who we want to be,” Moser said.

The question is can they be that team on the road or when the opponent isn’t San Diego State? Those plays also make it all the more noticeable when the effort isn’t there.

UNLV’s best is good enough to beat almost anybody, yet consistently playing like that still escapes the Rebels. No. 24 Colorado State (21-4, 8-2) comes to the Mack on Wednesday, a challenge arguably greater than taking down SDSU.

If the Rebels are going to be the team they want to be, they have to play every game like they did this one.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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