Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013 | 11:30 p.m.
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The change emphasized just how important it is to be ready at any given time, especially when the Rebels’ best player is battling an illness. Despite dealing with something that clearly slowed him down — UNLV coach Dave Rice said he wasn’t sure of the diagnosis — freshman Anthony Bennett finished with 22 points and 16 rebounds.
Bennett could only play in spurts, though, which was part of the reason the Falcons (9-5, 1-1) made this a battle in the second half. It’s also the reason Rice looked in his huddle and pointed to Dejean-Jones, who hit the game-tying free throws with 36 seconds left that forced overtime, as the guy the Rebels (14-3, 1-1) would rely on to make game-winning plays.
“Tonight he told me that’s what he needed me to do and I had to step up for him,” Dejean-Jones said.
Dejean-Jones dunked for the Rebels’ first points of overtime and then hit a jumper with 1:06 remaining to tie the game.
The Falcons made life difficult on UNLV for most of the game with 3-pointers, constant cuts to the basket and a matchup zone defense that occasionally confounded the Rebels, who went more than seven minutes in the second half without a made field goal. It was a simple Michael Lyons drive to the basket that gave Air Force its final lead, though, as Lyons drew a foul and hit his first free throw. He missed the second, and without calling a timeout the Rebels came down for their final full possession.
Bennett was on the court, and while he drew most of the attention, Anthony Marshall found Dejean-Jones along the right baseline. Dejean-Jones said he was surprised by how open he was on the shot, one he calmly hit from about 12 feet out for the go-ahead points with 12.8 seconds remaining.
“He easily could have been down because we replaced him in the starting lineup,” Rice said, “and then all he does is make huge shots down the stretch.”
Air Force’s ensuing possession ended with a difficult Lyons turnaround shot in the lane. Khem Birch grabbed the rebound and hit two free throws, then after the Falcons’ inbounds attempt sailed to the other baseline, Dejean-Jones drew a foul with 1.4 seconds left and hit another pair of free throws for the final margin.
Dejean-Jones shot 3-for-4 in overtime and finished with eight points. He went to the bench at the beginning because junior forward Mike Moser returned to the starting lineup for the first time since Dec. 9. While still showing some signs of rust, Moser played 40 minutes and recorded a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Rice said the lineup change, a decision that’s been looming for weeks, had to do mostly with positions. He didn’t want Katin Reinhardt and Justin Hawkins both waiting to come off the bench to the 2 spot, so Rice sat Dejean-Jones because he and Moser both play a lot at the 3.
The stat Rice most often quotes after games is the team’s number of assists to made baskets. The closer the numbers, the better the Rebels are generally playing. And looking only at that — 23 assists on 26 made shots — indicated an easy victory.
It wasn’t largely because of that stretch in the second half when the Rebels went cold. After a Bennett tip-in with 10:42 remaining, UNLV went 0-for-7 from the field, including 0-for-3 on 3-pointers, and 1-of-5 at the free-throw line until Justin Hawkins hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 3:37 to play.
The Falcons’ matchup zone defense didn’t seem to make any dramatic changes during that time to frustrate the Rebels. Part of it could even be attributed to the overall lack of energy Rice noted after the game.
“I think part of it was maybe residual affect from new guys and disappointment from the last game,” Rice said. “And we can say, “Well, you shouldn’t be that” and that’s all well and good, but we’re still dealing with 18- and 19-year-old guys who are in their first college experience. It’s the byproduct of huge expectations, which we understand, and guys on our team who feel like they have let people down.”
The Rebels needed more end-of-game experience after how the New Mexico game played out, though they were probably hoping it wouldn’t come so soon. They’ll certainly take this outcome over that one, though.
And while Dejean-Jones played the hero, Rice had just as much praise for a guy who only took, and missed, one shot.
“It has to start with Anthony Marshall,” Rice said.
Rice actually said it twice, an emphasis that suggests the coach wants to tell anyone who will listen that he’s happy with his point guard. Marshall finished with 12 assists and two turnovers, plus three rebounds and that one missed shot.
Marshall said he didn’t remember the last time he played a full half without taking a shot, and whether that’s something that will start a trend or an aberration remains to be seen.
What’s clear is that Marshall wants to and feels he’s ready to take on a little bit different role, that of the pass-first point guard.
“For us to be successful I don’t need to (shoot),” Marshall said. “I just need to put guys into position to be successful as a unit.”
Whether it’s Dejean-Jones or Marshall, roles may continue to shift and change as the Rebels try to survive the next month, the next week and even the next game in league play. If anything’s clear, it’s that nothing’s going to be easy for this team.