Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | 2 p.m.
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 72, Air Force 56
- Blog: Bennett scores 23 as Rebels advance past injured Air Force
- UNLV’s big men will try to beef up production as Rebels begin tournament play
- Bennett gets first team; other Rebels honored by the Mountain West
- UNLV Extras: Writer reveals his all-Mountain West selections
- Mississippi juco guard becomes fifth member of UNLV’s incoming class
- Mountain West tournament field set: Rebels to face Air Force on Wednesday
- Rebels saw warning signs and still couldn’t prevent loss to Fresno State
- Seniors Marshall and Hawkins have work left to do for their UNLV legacy
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
- All Mountain West Conference tournament coverage
Moments before the start of the UNLV basketball team’s Mountain West Conference tournament quarterfinal game Wednesday against Air Force, one of my media colleagues asked for a prediction.
With a straight face, I told him the Rebels would win by double digits. Not just against Air Force, but in the Rebels’ other tournament games, too. So far, so good — UNLV beat Air Force 72-56 in advancing to Friday’s semifinals.
Considering UNLV lost to an 11-win team at home four days ago and has severely underachieved most of the season, the proclamation of three wins by double digits might not seem too logical.
Of course, the outcome of today's game is deceiving because Air Force’s Michael Lyons, a first-team All-Mountain West selection who scorched UNLV in two regular-season meetings, exited with an ugly knee injury after just three minutes. That changed the Falcons’ plan of attack and ultimately killed the confidence they entered with from beating UNLV once this season and narrowly losing in overtime in the other contest. Air Force also had momentum on its side from beating league-champ New Mexico last Saturday.
But, at this stage of the season, there are no asterisks next to the final score. All wins carry the same value — they advance you to another stage of the tournament you are playing in.
That’s where you have to give UNLV credit for taking advantage of the Lyon-less Falcons. With Air Force searching for answers after Lyons was carried to the locker room, UNLV forced 13 first-half turnovers and limited Air Force to 4 of 12 on its 3-point attempts.
UNLV wasn’t at its best early in the game, and some will argue this year’s group won’t equal the lofty preseason expectations. But they smelled blood after the injury and ultimately imposed their will. It’s what more talented teams do when they sense weakness in an opponent.
And in the second half, UNLV looked like that special team some expected it to be. Bryce Dejean-Jones dunked over a pair of defenders, freshman sensation Anthony Bennett finally played again like a sensation, Justin Hawkins finally hit a jump shot and the Rebels appeared to have their swagger back.
There is no doubting the talent on the UNLV roster. And it’s no secret that talent has meshed well in bringing on much criticism. My theory of three victories by double digits is because I truly believe the shocking loss last week to Fresno State was a wake-up call, and something finally clicked with the players. Their window to have a memorable season was slowly closing, and reversing the trend needed to happen immediately.
Who knows? Maybe today was the start of something promising.
The only way UNLV can silence its critics, though, is to keep winning. This week, next week, and in what would really signal a turnaround, in three weeks. Today, they took a step in the right direction. Even if it was a small step.
Here are two more observations from the win:
All eyes on Anthony Bennett: NBA scouts will be front and center the rest of the way of Anthony Bennett’s UNLV career and dissecting his every movement. It’s that way for any potential lottery draft pick a professional franchise will invest millions in. That’s good news for UNLV because when Bennett is at his best, the Rebels have the potential to do great things. When UNLV opened the second half with 21 points in nine minutes to essentially put the game away, Bennett was a beast. He drained a pair of 3-pointers and made a reverse dunk in transition in showing his versatility. While he hasn’t been at his best down the stretch, his ability to score from the inside and out always puts UNLV at an advantage, because the opposition’s post players have to guard the perimeter. He finished with 23 points, including two monster dunks down the stretch.
Moser hitting the glass: Mike Moser finally appears to be returning to form. An ugly elbow injury early in the season at Cal derailed his plans for a solid final season before heading early to the NBA Draft, and after several dismal performances, he seems to have found his stride. He shined last year in the post at power forward but was penciled in on the wing this year to improve his draft stock. He’s just more valuable on the inside — something witnessed against Air Force. He grabbed 10 rebounds in the victory, typically racing the ball up the floor himself to start the fast break. When UNLV was great last year early in the season, much of the success was credited to Moser’s gaudy rebounding figures and his ability to start the transition offense. The experiment on the wing never had a chance to develop because the injured elbow hindered his shooting. He’s back in the starting rotation in post and should be a mainstay underneath the rest of the year. The best way to improve his draft stock isn’t by hitting jumpers. It’s by having good performances. That’s what he did today.