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

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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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  1. Thanks for the effort tonight, Rebels! Keep that heart and play like it counts the rest of the way.

  2. This goes out to JPReza.....great win fellas Run As One! Heavyweight Fight we showed heart and guts the crowd was awesome. It had it moments but like anything in life nothing comes easy!

  3. It was nice to see the Rebels play so hard and hats off to SDSU as well, they played really tough all game. Good win!

  4. This was hardly a masterpiece. Lots of careless turnovers, some bad shots taken, some occasionally shaky defense. But the effort and tenacity was incredible. That is what won the game. Giving a great effort can overcome some bad plays. Now why can't we play with passion on the road? Runnin' Rebels!

  5. As much how the team deserves to be heavily criticized on the road, they deserve a lot of praise today. If they play as hard they did today every game, they will go to the Sweet Sixteen.

  6. As always, you can see "WHO" we respect & don't. That has got to change if we want to be the best.

  7. Great win. Stay focused and continue playing this hard. There's no room to be complacent, we need you to win out.

  8. I beg of you Anthony Marshall to pass the ball to Anthony Bennett in the post or off a pick. I can read your mind, you being a former shooting guard, that you want to finish the plays. Bennett will always be a better finisher than you. Please pass the ball.

  9. 2 reasons we won....For the first time this season we had Bennet, Birch, Moser in the game all contributing big minutes and big plays. (Even if Moser is about 80% recovered from injury). Second reason....Coach Rice had his best coaching game of the season. Keeping the effective players in for longer periods of time so they could find there rhythm together. Then benching players that were not getting the job done. Great job Coach and players.

  10. The thing that nobody wants to give Dave Rice credit for is that he has a clear vision for the program. He's definitely taking positive strides towards that vision.

  11. Great game Rebs! Excellent effort. Players and coaches all did a great job tonight. Of course the execution wasn't perfect, but that long second half run was a thing of beauty! Let's come out with the same fire, drive, and intensity on Wednesday that we came out with tonight. Hopefully this will FINALLY be the game that rights the ship for our guys and we can win out. With effort like we gave tonight it is completely doable. We may still end up with the 3 seed in the MWC tourney even by winning out, but it will give us great momentum going into the conference and NCAA tournaments. First things first though--let's go get CSU. Go Rebels!

  12. @rebel_in_indiana (J Dinz) - I'm a big believer in momentum, and now is the right time to peak.

    Also, I hope that coach Dave Rice keeps up his quick whistle in practice. In the last couple of practices, he's been quick to blow the whistle for any number of reasons (effort, execution, etc.). Finally, I like that he took out Bennett and Dejean-Jones for not playing defense in the first half. They defended much better in the second half.

  13. It was a game where UNLV showed passion. Problem is they had no choice but to show this passion, due to the hole that this team has dug with their poor play on the road. Heaven forbid that this UNLV team goes into Reno and puts up an effort like the ones at Air Force and Fresno State.

    Steve Fisher is not the greatest Coach in the world either. What he does have is tough players that are his leaders.

    NCAA Tournament games are road games, if UNLV wants to play on the West Coast - they have to win their remaining road games, beat Colorado State at home and watch the rest of the conference continue to beat up on each other.

  14. @phillips....Exactly. Rice has been focusing too much on the minutia & assuming/entrusting that the effort & attitude would be constant. Given the fact that this is the FIRST real UNLV season for four of our starters, their youth & inexperience required major grooming. And I think Rice's emphasis & patience has been mostly in that area which allowed other standards to become blurred in the player's minds. That ALL changed when he benched Bennett & BDJ. Rice went back to basics and basically said in the radio post game "I was searching for 5 guys who played with passion & fire on both ends. 5 guys who play like a Runnin Rebel. I didnt care who it was." Bravo, Coach!

    The best asst coach on the UNLV staff and the best motivator in the building is named: The Bench. Lets hope we sign it to a long term deal! lol

  15. @kirkland - You are INSANE if you think Steve Fisher isn't all that good of a coach. He has a national championship under his belt, and he coached the Fab Five at Michigan. He already had a good track record before he arrived at SDSU. He turned them from perennial losers into a very good college basketball program.

  16. Steve Fisher is an excellent coach. I'd put him number 2 in the conference behind (as much as it pains me to say it) Alford. In all honesty, this is the first it time in quite a few years that I didn't feel like Fisher out-coached us. In fact, I thought Rice's coaching decisions, especially @SDSU, went a long way toward us being able to sweep the Aztecs. He's still has a ton of growing to do as a coach, but its not like he's been all bad this year.

    It seems like the last few games has finally pushed Rice to the point where nobody gets the benefit of the doubt anymore. He's holding players more accountable for playing hard and playing smart then he was earlier in the season. Lopez played well against UNM, he got extended minutes. Reinhardt makes some really poor decisions on 2 or 3 straight possessions, he takes a seat. Djonian hit the nail on the head; the bench is a huge motivator.