Rebels basketball:

Birch surprises himself with stellar offensive performance in UNLV’s victory

Birch had 20 points, eight rebounds and six blocks while Justin Hawkins provided the punch in Rebels’ decisive run against Canisius

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Justin Hawkins and forward Khem Birch celebrate Birch’s and-one play against Canisius during their game Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack. The Runnin’ Rebels won 89-74.

UNLV vs. Canisius 2012

UNLV forward Anthony Bennett celebrates his three-point basket against Canisius during the first half of their game Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack. Launch slideshow »

The answer says nothing and everything at the same time, its simplicity complicated by the possible implications for the 21st-ranked Rebels.

In his third game for UNLV, sophomore forward Khem Birch played 29 minutes and scored 20 points on 7-of-8 shooting, plus 6-for-8 at the free-throw line, grabbed eight rebounds, blocked six shots and dished out three assists with one turnover. It was the best in a bushel full of great offensive performances in UNLV’s 89-74 victory against Canisius (8-3) on Saturday night in the Thomas & Mack Center in front of 14,533 fans.

The questioner looked at that stat line and put forth a remark that would sound crazy if it didn’t make so much sense. Is this the best you can do?

“I have no idea,” Birch said.

And he’s right. It seems ridiculous to anticipate these types of games from him every night, but in reality it’s only Birch’s third game with the Rebels (11-1) and his 13th Division I game overall, including his time at Pitt. No one knows exactly what to expect, including Birch, who has been saying since the preseason that anything he did on offense would be a bonus. He was as surprised as anyone.

“I didn’t think it would translate to games this early,” Birch said.

The production is due largely to the amount of time he’s spent after practice in the past year, working overtime with coaches to develop a post game. Birch has said that when he arrived at Pitt he didn’t even know how to drop step, the result of his ability to beat players in high school and the AAU circuit on pure athleticism. Pair that natural agility with precise moves and he could eventually rival the arsenal of Anthony Bennett, who led the Rebels with 21 points.

So good was UNLV on offense that you could argue no fewer than four Rebels played their best offensive games of the season. In addition to the two bigs, freshman Katin Reinhardt looked more comfortable than he has all year — 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, five assists and three steals — and he gave a lot of credit for that to senior Justin Hawkins, who scored all 12 of his points during the decisive 21-6 run in the middle of the second half.

As well as UNLV played, it still needed that shot in the arm to pull away from the Golden Griffins, who were led by junior Billy Baron’s 30 points.

Canisius cut its deficit to 57-54 with 12:52 remaining. Just prior to that Hawkins had entered the game with a message from UNLV coach Dave Rice.

“I kind of felt the game slipping,” Hawkins said. "Coach approached me and Anthony (Marshall) and said, ‘Someone’s got to make a play sooner or later.’ When I checked in I felt I had to do something on the defensive end and it just translated to offense.”

In addition to his 12 points, which included a made shot on an attempted alley-oop, Hawkins had two steals, two rebounds, one block and one assist during that stretch. It was similar to the impact he made at Portland, where his performance completely changed the momentum and helped UNLV eke out a victory.

This one didn’t come nearly that close because his teammates were also dialed in. The team shot 59.6 percent from the field, 46.2 percent behind the three-point line and 75 percent on free-throw attempts. Canisius is a tremendous 3-point shooting team, as it proved with a 13-for-29 performance, but the Golden Griffins couldn’t keep pace on fast breaks (UNLV 26-10) or in the paint (UNLV 44-24). And what generated a lot of those points, as it often does when the Rebels are at their best, was defense, where they blocked 13 shots, by far the most in any game of the Rice era.

“If your guy’s driving by you, you can see Khem coming and you can let (your man) go a little bit,” Reinhardt said. “We don’t want to make any bad decisions in terms of just letting the ball go to the basket but if we’re late we can tell that if we can force them straight to the basket then he’ll block that shot. We have that kind of presence there and it’s evolving throughout the games as we progress.”

That part of Birch’s game was all but expected. After all, this isn’t even a new career high in blocks; it ties what Birch did more than a year ago with Pitt against Robert Morris.

So while his defense — both how he plays and what that means for how the rest of the team can guard their men — is great, it’s the offense that has the Rebels especially excited. Birch and Bennett, the Canadian comrades and fellow McDonald’s All-Americans, not only work well together, they make each other better.

Can Birch sustain an offensive performance anywhere close to what he did Saturday? Will the pieces all operate as smoothly when junior Mike Moser reenters the rotation?

The Rebels have no idea, though this game did offer a view of the brightest end of the spectrum.

“We saw more than glimpses tonight of how good a basketball team we have the potential to be,” Rice said.

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

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  1. Birch was fantastic. If he is raw what does that make QT or Carlos? What a refreshing change to see a center catch almost everything thrown his way, slash to the basket and finish over defenders. I would hope that Coach Rice starts Khem against UNC and off we go. I feel for QT and Carlos but the time has come. Only thing I did not care for was that with Khem working underneath, AB floated out to the perimeter and I think only had a couple post touches all night. Got to make sure that AB still gets involved on the block. Can't wait to see how they fare in Chapel Hill. Will be nice to see them play a top 25 team on the road.

  2. These McDonald's All-Americans are pretty good...maybe we should get more!

    If only it were that easy.

  3. The performance of Bennet and Birch is just ok. They need to stay with the rebels one more year in preparation for the next level.

  4. now THAT was a pretty good looking performance. even with the turnovers, which i'm fine with if they come in the service of the running game being revved up. birch sure looks like the real deal, it'll be interesting to see how he does on the road against a more capable front line, but i don't think his talent can be denied. and no, mr. quagmire, bennett--as much as i'd like him to--is not staying after this year. he's a damn sight better than "just ok", and it would be nigh criminal for him to pass up the next level after what he's shown this season already. birch will stay, though. pretty sure of that.

  5. I hope Moser doesn't effect the chemistry that has developed between Bennett and Birch when he comes back. When moser was playing, the offense went through him and not Bennett.

    Has anybody watched Shabazz lately. I never see him congratulate his teammates when they do something good, especially Jordan Adams. Last night Adams made a 3 point play getting knocked to the ground. Shabazz just walks by him doesn't help him up or congratulate him. Has anybody else noticed this watching him. It makes me extremely thankful we got Bennett, a consumate team player. Since Birch has stsrted playing, Bennett has made it a point to get Birch going offensively.

  6. Very impressed with Mr Birch. Now we just need a dynamic Point guard to bring it all together.

  7. I'm very happy with the direction the team is headed in. They are improving game-by-game, and they're still a long ways away from their potential.

    On a side note, it looks as though Mike Moser might have been overrated by us all. The Rebels haven't really missed much since he's been gone. However, this is by no means an indictment on Moser. He will bring energy and rebounding to the lineup when he returns. He will also be valuable when attacking the zone.

  8. Rebeltom - We do have a dynamic point guard! He leads the mountain west in assists per game. He is averaging just over 10 pts a game, and gets 4 rebs a game. What more do you want?? He is athletic, quick, plays solid defense. Im sick of people saying we dont have a true point guard. Not everyone can get a John Stockton or rajon rondo! He is a greta point guard. He has his own style which may not look pretty at times but he is getting the job done.

  9. I agree with Jbowler- Marshall deserves to be given some slack. Consider he's playing out of position, and still hitting 50%+ from 3 pt, while managing a decent assist-to-TO ratio, good enough to be recognized as a Bob Cousy award candidate should silence the critics. Not only that, he's a true Las Vegas kid a la Fearless and the team is piling up W's. I would like to see DQ get some more PT also but minutes are hard to come by on this deep squad, and I get the feeling Rice doesn't trust DQ with the keys to the family sedan...yet.

  10. This is the way I see it, how did UK win it all last year? They had only role playing guards, correct? But they had an absolute menace controlling that paint. Did you see Anthony Davis stats? 18 rbs, 5 asst, 6 blocks, 3 steals in the championship game? How are all championships won the past 5 years? Florida and Noah and Horford, UNC had Hansborough and Davis....these teams win by fierce front courts. Guard play like SDSU and UNM can only take you to Round 2 in the NCAA tourney. Look at all the teams last year that were in the last 16....all had relentless front court. That's how you win national championships. UNLV has a forward that will average the same amount of blocks Anthony Davis did, another forward that can play a role like Terrence Jones and another that is as good as MKG (Moser). UNLV can make it extremely far in the tourney because this monstrous front court. Guard play is only to situate the offense and being a floor general. SDSU made the 16 2 years ago because of Thomas, White and Leonard...you can only imagine for UNLV.

  11. Guards are letting up and letting the opponents drive to the paint so they can get rejected, then immediately a fastbreak happens. Birch is the smartest shot blocker we've seen since Joel, and will definitely be better, too. Bennett, we all know, wreaks terror on opponents, and when moser comes back he will do all the little things. Tomas I'm also a big fan of and not so much Lopez but this dynamic front court can and should carry this team far. Don't worry so much about the other little things. I know Jones is ridiculous at charging the hoops and getting an offensive foul called every single time, and Marshall has stupid turnovers but no one is perfect. The front court still backs us up. DJ Gay, Rahon, etc weren't the best but they did just enough.

  12. Patticus, I got a buddy that coaches locally and he soured on Shabazz a long, long time ago. He made comments to me about his attitude going into his senior season at Gorman. Bennett was definitely the better get.

  13. The team is probably ahead of schedule per Rice's very conservative coachspeak comments. Birch has been a powerful addition and getting better! I look forward to Reinhart getting his game chops together and dropping 20 or more, hopefully on the Heels this Saturday. It took 13 three-pointers to beat them last year, and it was, frankly. a relatively easy win. Bottom line, west coast bb gets little respect from the media, and this is as much a statement game as any we'll have this year.

    Question=will Roy Williams double-team Bennet? If so. we should win given the parabolic progress the team has made.