Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 | 11:15 p.m.
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Khem Birch is eager to please, perhaps to a fault.
On his way back from his father’s wedding in Canada on Sunday, Birch had to go through an extra long process at customs on the U.S.-Canadian border. That held him up enough to miss his flight back to Las Vegas and miss Sunday night’s practice. As a result, UNLV coach Dave Rice held him out of the starting lineup, a small move that got big results from the sophomore forward.
“I wanted to impress my coaches because I came late,” Birch said. “I didn’t want to be like a bad person or anything.”
Birch scored a team-high 14 points with seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks in UNLV’s 66-54 victory against UNR (11-9, 2-4). That’s the good side of his desire to please.
The down side? The Rebels (17-4, 4-2) say they can’t get him to shoot enough.
“We had to get on him about shooting that open jumper,” said Bryce Dejean-Jones, who had 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists. “… He’ll be wide open sometimes and won’t know why, and he’s a good shooter so you have to tell him to shoot.”
Considering Birch’s evolving offensive game was supposed to be the cherry on top of his defensive presence it’s easy to see why he may be hesitant to be the guy shooting if it’s not a layup or dunk. He’s often the third, fourth or even fifth option on a particular possession. The key going forward will be convincing him that no matter the pecking order, Rice wants open shooters to shoot. Period.
Birch was 5-for-9 on Tuesday night, his second most attempts in a 12-game UNLV career. Still, when he’s rolling like he was in front of an excited Thomas & Mack Center crowd of 16,787, the Rebels would have been fine with a few more. That’s due in large part to the lack of consistent options elsewhere on the floor. UNLV shot 39 percent from the field, 27.3 percent behind the three-point line and 63.6 percent at the free-throw line.
“We could never quite get into an offensive flow tonight,” Rice said.
Rice credited some of that to the Wolf Pack, who switched between zone and man defenses while also throwing some full-court pressure at the Rebels. Those maneuvers could have paid off more had UNR not equaled UNLV’s shooting woes with 38 percent from the floor and 25 behind the three-point line. There aren’t many teams who can shoot like that in the Mack and win, and despite hanging tough for much of the second half the Wolf Pack were no exception.
UNR’s Deonte Burton had 14 points and seven assists while Jerry Evans Jr. finished with 14 points and nine rebounds. Evans’ rebounding tally equaled nearly a third of the team’s total (28), which was far behind the Rebels’ 44, including 16 offensive rebounds.
Credit those numbers to Birch, Quintrell Thomas (six points, four rebounds) and Anthony Bennett, who finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and five turnovers in 22 minutes. Bennett sat the final four minutes as Rice once again opted for a smaller lineup with Birch at center and Mike Moser at power forward.
“I did think the smaller lineup in the second half was better for us defensively,” Rice said.
Rice did something similar in the victory at San Diego State, putting both Moser and Bennett on the bench down the stretch. For as much talk and expectations as there were about Bennett, Birch and Moser playing on the floor at the same time, the Rebels haven’t run out that lineup with much success this year.
Part of it is certainly due to the limited time Birch and Moser have both been healthy and eligible, but going forward it doesn’t seem like it will become a staple, either. Rice really likes what the Rebels are doing defensively. His main concern after the game was turning that defense into easier points.
“I definitely want to get something that’s going to get us going off our defense,” Rice said.
That’s in keeping with the smaller lineup, which would usually have more ball-handlers available to start a run out. Those transition plays have been few and far between in conference play, with three of the six opponents keeping the Rebels at six fast-break points or fewer. UNLV scored seven on the break against UNR, which Anthony Marshall said limited the Rebels’ opportunities by getting back on defense.
Marshall, who had eight points and six assists to two turnovers, said he’s OK with the low number of transition possessions because he believes the Rebels are just as good in half-court sets as they are on the run.
While Rice has said similar things about his confidence in the half court, he still wants to make life easier with open layups off of turnovers and defensive rebounds. Rice thinks the Rebels can do that, in part, because of how much Birch affects opponents when they’re on offense.
Birch had two blocks, Rice said, but “he altered a number of other shots and he’s such a defensive presence for us.”
Birch also got out and ran a bit, finishing a second-half fast break with a dunk. That’s really the perfect situation for the Rebels.
It was an easy shot and Birch knew it would make his coaches happy.