SAN DIEGO — Are these Rebels tough enough?
That was the recurring question that dogged UNLV as the team prepared for Wednesday’s rivalry game at San Diego State. Well, it might be time to retire that particular query after the Rebels walked into Viejas Arena and won a slugfest over No. 15 SDSU, 82-75.
You want toughness? With just under four minutes to play, the game was tied, 73-73. From that point on, the Rebels’ final three buckets came on offensive rebounds, including a pair of putbacks from sophomore center Khem Birch. For the game, UNLV out-rebounded San Diego State 43-31.
It was a far cry from the team that failed to respond down the stretch in a 65-60 loss at New Mexico exactly one week ago.
“We talked to our team about one thing primarily,” said Dave Rice, “and that was being tough.”
“Certainly tonight, this was a great toughness win for us,” Rice continued. “And I couldn’t be prouder of our team.”
You need more proof? Witness Anthony Marshall’s 20 points and eight rebounds, as the point guard threw his body into the lane time and time again in an effort to jumpstart the offense whenever things started to bog down in the second half.
“It was a gutsy effort by everybody on the team,” said Marshall. “To get a win here, we knew it was going to come down to the last couple possessions, so it was just a tough team effort to get the win.”
UNLV had trouble stopping San Diego State’s perimeter attack for most of the night, as guards Jamaal Franklin (27 points), Winston Shepard (18) and Chase Tapley (16) combined for 61 points. But the Rebels went to a smaller lineup in the final minutes, anchored by Khem Birch as the lone big man on the floor, and that group came up clutch.
Birch tipped in a missed jumper to give UNLV a 76-73 lead with 2:25 to play, and Justin Hawkins ripped down another key offensive rebound with 1:19 to play, laying it in to extend the lead to 78-73.
After a quick SDSU bucket, Birch (12 points, five rebounds, five blocks) all but sealed the win by rebounding a Marshall miss and laying it in with his left hand to make it 80-75 with 26 seconds left.
Now the Rebels have a signature win, and there’s no question about how they got it.
“Toughness,” said Hawkins. “It’s always going to be toughness, no matter what, everywhere you go. This is a very hostile environment, and the fact that we just banded together as brothers, as a family, and just gutted it out together, it proved a lot.”
Small-ball pays dividends
With 3:43 left in the game, with the score tied 73-73, Rice made a crucial decision to put Anthony Bennett on the bench and finish the game with a small-ball lineup. The crew of Marshall, Katin Reinhardt, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Justin Hawkins and Khem Birch rewarded the coach’s faith by closing the game on a 9-2 run.
It was a gamble for Rice, who wanted to match up with San Diego State’s guard-heavy attack. Jamaal Franklin and Winston Shepard had spent much of the night torturing the Rebels defense with penetration, as evidenced by Franklin’s 10 free throw attempts and Shephard’s 12. But in that final stretch, UNLV’s small lineup effectively shut down all driving lanes, and the Aztecs’ only points came on an off-balance jumper from Shephard.
“We had to go small to match what they were doing,” said Rice. “They’re so good on the perimeter with Tapley and Franklin and Rahon and Thames. We just felt like it was important for us to match their size on the perimeter. Justin Hawkins is so smart, he played the power forward spot for us and we tried to mix-and-match.”
Don’t expect to see Anthony Bennett finish too many games on the bench, but for one night, the Rebels were able to make it work and come away with their biggest win of the season.
For the second straight game, Bryce Dejean-Jones seemed to respond well to coming off the bench. He finished with 14 points, and though he wasn’t quite as efficient as he was against Air Force (5-of-14 FGs), he opened things up with aggressive penetration.
Dejean-Jones also played a solid defensive game, which is why he was on the floor to close out the win. It’s always risky to move a starter to the bench, but so far (small sample size alert), Dejean-Jones appears to be responding positively.
Veterans savor big win
After the game, it was obvious how important this win was to the longest-tenured members of the team. Rice said afterward that the team dedicated the game to seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, who had never won at San Diego before, and both of those guys agreed that it was a huge moment for them, and for the team.
“It’s very special,” said Marshall. “I know the last couple games (at San Diego State) it’s come down to the wire. We just weren’t mentally tough enough to get those wins. To get one here means a lot.”
“It feels good,” echoed Hawkins. “It’s relieving, finally getting a win here on the road.”
And after conducting on-court interviews, Marshall soaked in the cheers from road-tripping UNLV fans as he walked to the locker room. Before the team bus departed the arena, several members of the team returned to the UNLV student section to mingle with fans and take photographs. They were savoring it.
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