Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Published Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | 4:10 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | 5:40 p.m.
- Instant Analysis: Could the Rebels have their swagger back after 16-point league tournament win against Air Force?
- 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
- UNLV Extras: Writer reveals his all-Mountain West selections
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
- All Mountain West Conference tournament coverage
No Rebel is going to apologize for the way they advanced to the Mountain West tournament semifinals on Wednesday, especially after the way Anthony Bennett found his groove and dominated offensively in the second half. Injuries are just part of the game, though rarely do they effectively end the contest less than two minutes in as Michael Lyons’ sprained right knee did in UNLV’s 72-56 quarterfinal victory against Air Force at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“As he goes, we go,” said Falcons coach Dave Pilipovich.
And boy did they go. After turning the ball over near midcourt, Lyons bumped his knee against UNLV’s Bryce Dejean-Jones. The latter swooped in for a layup while Lyons stayed down on the court. He had to be helped up the ramp back to Air Force’s locker room, and once he was gone, there was no helping the Falcons, who would also lose starting center Taylor Broekhuis after the big man took multiple shots to the head.
“Obviously it wasn’t a game that we anticipated or prepped for,” Pilipovich said.
That’s true for the Rebels, too. They never anticipated it being that easy. Now the team's in a semifinal at 8:30 p.m. Friday against Colorado State, which fended off Fresno State. The Rams played without point guard Dorian Green (ankle), and they will likely be without him again against UNLV.
Air Force was arguably the better team in both previous matchups this year and blew UNLV away in the last meeting at Clune Arena. But without Lyons and Broekhuis, the offense looked lost, unable to connect on passes to guys cutting to the basket. In the first half, the Falcons committed 13 turnovers and went more than eight minutes without a point while UNLV built a comfortable lead that was never threatened.
“It all started with defense,” said UNLV’s Anthony Marshall, who finished with 11 points.
UNLV deserves credit for guarding the backdoor cuts much better and making life difficult for Air Force, but that probably wasn’t as difficult to overcome as it was to adjust to life without two starters while multiple bench players also hobbled off with various ailments.
The way the Rebels played, they were likely going to win no matter who the Falcons threw out there. Bennett started the game well before asking to come out. In the second half, he was breathing a lot easier and doing whatever he wanted to the Falcons’ defense.
Bennett scored eight points in the first four minutes with two 3s and a short jumper. After that, he did most of his work in the paint, flushing three dunks and finishing with 23 points and seven rebounds. His 10-for-14 shooting is a new league tournament record for field goal percentage (71.4) for a freshman.
“I was going out there doing the best I can,” Bennett said.
The league’s Freshman of the Year played without a wrap on his left shoulder, which he said felt “pretty good,” and changed his shoes at halftime, a surprisingly frequent occurrence on the current roster. His performance had more to do with the Falcons’ struggling defense than his new shoes, though fans would probably prefer he keep going with the same pair.
Bennett had by far the highest volume of UNLV highlights, but Dejean-Jones took home the top prize with a baseline drive and dunk. He finished with 12 points and five assists to no turnovers, and Mike Moser had nine points and 10 rebounds.
This was the first time Moser and Bennett started together since January, a pairing that worked well as UNLV played defense with all five guys switching off screens.
“Coach said we were starting together and we both had big smiles on our face,” Moser said. “We love playing together.”
Rice said that lineup only works because Defensive Player of the Year Khem Birch is OK coming off the bench if that’s what the team needs. Birch scored eight points on 4-of-4 shooting with four rebounds and three blocks in 19 minutes.
This victory presents the same problems in terms of drawing conclusions as the recent road win at Wyoming. That Cowboys squad was a shell of itself without Leonard Washington and Luke Martinez, just like Air Force without its two starters. Again, that’s not something the Rebels have to apologize for, but it should temper the excitement the fan base would otherwise feel after a double-digit victory against a quality team.
The Rebels will likely face another depleted team as Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy said he was almost positive Green wouldn't be ready to play. Of course, the pressure is still on UNLV to take advantage and impose its will.
The Rebels did exactly that Wednesday afternoon. It’s a good result in their first March tournament game, even if it was much easier than anticipated.