UNLV basketball:

Birch bounces off the bench to lead Rebels in 12-point victory against Wolf Pack

The sophomore forward had 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in an effort to prove something to his coaches after missing practice Sunday

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Justin Hawkins dishes off a pass to Khem Birch during their game against UNR Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack. UNLV won the game 66-54.

UNLV vs. UNR - Jan. 29, 2013

UNLV forward Khem Birch grabs a rebound from UNR guard Jerry Evans Jr. during their game Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack. UNLV won the game 66-54. Launch slideshow »

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.

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV forward Khem Birch blocks UNR guard Deonte Burton's shot during their game Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013.

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.

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

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  1. I know that you certainly take wins and being 17-4(4-2) is very acceptable but the way this team is playing to me is a big concern. Although I wish the Rebels would be more in your face defensively and force the other team into mistakes through pressure, you cannot argue the results of this teams defensive philosophy. Holding teams to 38% from the floor and 28% from 3 is excellent. You also cannot fault this team in the rebounding department. Averaging 41 rpg and outrebounding opponents by an average of 8 per game is terrific. What I am absolutely concerned about is the this teams lack of point production, stagnant offense and turnovers. Anthony Marshall has done a tremendous job since conference began on the offensive end. He has carried us at the point. He desperately needs some help. Jones and Reinhardt are still playing with a very low bball IQ and scare the hell out of me when they touch the ball and start dribbling. How about that stupid And1 mix tape move that Reinhardt pulled at the end of the game? 21 games into the season and he thinks that is a good play? Make the simple play Katin. Just a simple bounce pass and Khem has a dunk. Moser does not seem to get it either. He currently has no feel for the game. He shoots when he should pass, passes when he should shoot and also makes too many bad decisions. Anthony Bennett continues to act disinterested for many possesions. Justin Hawkins, who has always been a streaky shooter, cannot not currently hit the ocean from the beach from the perimeter or the free throw line. He is shoting 61.5% from the line. There is no flow or rythym to our games. Our offense is so much 3 guys standing around watching a high ball screen. Does this sound familiar? Seems to me we all complained about Coach Kruger's offense and this is a carbon copy. I thought that Dave Rice's speciality was offense? So far we have scored in the 60's in regulation in 5 of the 6 conference games. Once again we are the Walking Rebels. Now some of you may reference this as "hating" and say that this was a good, tough conference win. Obviously we all have our opinions!

  2. I absolutely agree with you Gumby. I will always take a win but, the concerns you expressed I echo. I will add one concern and that's the lack of playing time for Goodman. He is better than Moser on defense and the boards, they cancel each other out offensively. Plus, Goodman is a Freshman which means we could have him for four years as a starter. Does anyone know why he doesn't play? Mr. Bern?

  3. gumby2323 - The reason why the Rebels aren't able to push the tempo is because Anthony Marshall isn't an up-tempo point guard let alone a point guard. Don't get me wrong, Anthony Marshall has done a good job. However, he works better in the half court offense when a play is called.

    Also, the players who can operate well in the fast break on the team don't have the experience to play up tempo effectively.

    The Rebels were able to run last year because of Bellfield at the point and Moser grabbing the rebounds. I think the Rebels will be able to run next year as well because Cook should be more seasoned and Kendrick is a very talented player who will be in his fourth year of college.

  4. Gumby is right on, the walking rebels are what we are. The run as one was a ploy to sell tickets only. I still thinkthat coach Rice does not have control or the respect of his players. With 5min leftlast night he pulled the team up to hold the ball, and again it blew up in his face 2 turnovers in a row and he nearly blew it again. This has to be fixed soon, or again we will be one and done it the NCAA s..........

  5. I'm still seeing improvement so that is a plus. I think the problem with Moser is that he doesn't know where he fits in. Moser was great last year when he played around the basket and lost his effectiveness when he floated around outside the 3 point line. Moser is almost always floating around outside now and his shot selection seems to be a three point shot. Last year Moser had some alley oops and plays designed for him inside, I can't recall any this year. I always cringe when Moser shoots threes because he simply is not a good three point shooter. Much like Stanback, if Moser takes his first shot of the game inside the arc he usually has a better game since he normally hits that shot and everything builds off the confidence. I think if Moser would start playing more within the arc his game comes back. Just because you are allowed to shoot a 3 anytime you feel you are open doesn't mean you should.

  6. That is a fair point phillips. Anthony Marshall is playing out of position and not having a guy that is used to running a team does make a difference in being effective in the open floor. Marshall does try to limit his mistakes by staying under control. Which tends to put us in the half court. I guess I am greedy. I want the Rebs to win and to do it by running the other team out of the gym. This half court stuff drives me nuts. We have too many Bo Ryan, Tony Bennett, Larry Shyatt teams out there. I was promised a run and gun style of play! Give me my fix Coach Rice!!!!

  7. Anthony Marshall playing out of position is a lame excuse for a non-problem. The kid is playing well as a point guard, his main problem is the inability or lack of vision to throw the alley-oop pass.

    Whoever the broadcaster was on the game last night for CBS had a valid point about this team's half court offense. It doesn't appear that throwing into the post on that 45 degree angle is effective for us at all. When Marshall did take the ball to the corner and toss it into the post, Bennett is able to be a dominate player.

    I love Q's hustle and intensity, but the kid has brick hands. There's got to be some kind of hand-eye coordination drills for that.

    Otherwise, any win over Reno is a good win. Keep improving Rebels and keep it rolling!

  8. Meeh, UNLV played decent. Yes, they played a half court game, but if UNLV plays a run and gun game,they lose control. Would you rather win with a half court game or create turnover after turnover after turnover in a run and gun style? Next year, we'll have Smith, so I think we will be able to run again.

  9. @YE - Kendall Smith isn't even going to play next season. Daquan Cook and Jelan Kendrick will be ahead of him on the depth chart.

    Also, there's a good chance that Christian Wood won't play next season. Assuming that Moser comes back, there would be about nine guys ahead of him in the rotation.

  10. When someone drives to the basket and dishes, good things happen. When guys drive to the basket and force a layup, or the rebs take quick outside shots, bad things happen.

    The ball is good inside if Bennett or Birch can actually get the ball near the paint, but they need to kick it out if they aren't close and try again, or a guard needs to drive and dish. Even if a shot goes up, if the rebs are in position down low, they have a good chance of getting the board on a miss.

    ALl that being said, it was a good defensive effort, and I've seen a great deal of improvement throughout this season on D, which leads to transition points and the Runnin' Rebel mantra.

  11. For those of us who have watched every game this year. The inability to run a half court offense has been costly to the Rebels in a number of their games this year. There have been stretches where we have had double digit leads in the 2nd half this season. Those double digit leads become single digit leads or even trailing because they would slow the game down and would run in transition and take shots that were ill advised and took no time off the clock. Smart basketball is when a team knows when to run and when to walk. There have been some right on comments about point guard play. Marshall is servicable but after him it is scary. DeJean-Jones is a turnover machine. And Katin might have stroke, but dribbling a ball is scary.

  12. Style of play is irrelevant. What matters for this team is to just win the game and to value the possession. We cant extend our D & pick up 3/4 or full ct because we lack the pt guard depth to execute it. Marshall would be too fatigued on our end to be effective driving/dishing and/or in foul trouble EVERY single game because he is prone to reaching & ticky tack fouls. DQ is the only 1 with the right decision making process & he just isnt ready for major minutes. I agree with the merits of doing it & having it jump start our running game but the depth & decision making just isnt there.

    Digging in half court on D, rebounding, and running when we can...and valuing the possession on our end...has been the blueprint for conf W's so far. Plus it will pay dividends in March. Rice's BYU teams pre & post Jimmer ran a awesome break for 6 yrs straight...and were one & done in the NCAA tourney too. There is nothing wrong with this team's progression except for some still shaky shot selection, some stagnant offen sets, & not being strong with the ball in transition. We're playing other team's game/style and beating them at it & finding we can play both ways. I like it. And I am cautiously optimistic. lol

  13. @djonian81 - The way they're winning now is the way they will have to win in March.

  14. The important thing to remember, and they mentioned this a few times on the broadcast last night, is that this team has really only been together at full strength will of of its players healthy for about 2 weeks. Moser is obviously struggling to find his role and it is concerning. You'd also have to think that a player with his talents and good attitude will find his comfort zone sooner or later.

    I completely agree that there are some issues that come up here or there and the play is definitely stagnant at times, but the half court offense is looking better. At this point, the defense is our strong suit. We're near the top of the country in opponent's FG% and rebounding, which means we are forcing bad shots and not letting opponents get many second chances. That alone is a recipe for success. We're also near the top of the country in assists per game. Its not the running, gunning style we'd all love to see, but its still more exciting than the Kruger years and we're still winning games.

    We definitely need to continue to gel as a team and take better care of the ball, but the strong rebounding and less dependency on the 3 ball, I think, gives us more potential to win in March. The half court offense needs to continue to improve if we'd like to see that deep run many of us were hoping for/expecting at the beginning of the year.

  15. I did like the way Birch played, he seemed to play with confidence. Katin, hit some nice three's, but...

  16. I agree on the entering the post pass. How many times do we see the guard trying to throw into Bennet and they are above the free throw line. 1. dribble down and get a better angle and 2. use a bounce pass.
    Also, a play doesn't need to be called to enter the post. Many times Bennet has position low on the blocks early on and they stop to call a play and set up an offense. You can easily have an initial attack into the post. Thats the easiest time to get position for Bennet because the D is not set yet.
    Entering the post is like body punches, once the post is scored multiple times, the defense will instinctively retreat to protect the paint and thus opening up the threes.

  17. There's two things that this team is doing this year consistently that has me believe we can make a run, and thats defense and rebounding! We are currently ranked #9 in the nation in total rebounds which is great! If you look at the past 5 national champions, They all were top 10 in reboounding and played great half court defense. Yes our offense has been shaky at times, but we still put up enough points to put ourselves in position to win ball games. There hasnt been 1 game all year long where we didnt have a chance to win. We have been in every single game which is great. We never have just gotten blown off the floor. If we can get a good enough seed come March say a 5 seed, then we can make it to the sweet 16, and anything further beyond that point would make this a very very good season. Im excited for the next round of conference games. We sit in a great position with only being back 1 game of first and having teams like UNM, SDSU, and CSU all on our home floor. Go Rebs!

  18. No surprises there , Rice sits Birch and still plays Rienhardt, every game. It's not like the kid missed practice on purpose. Rice should sit Rienhardt out maybe he'll play better .