UNLV basketball:

Birch sets 2nd-half tone for Rebels in season-opening 67-48 victory

UNLV led by only one at halftime because Portland State was the better rebounding team. Then Birch wiped that away and UNLV pulled away

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Khem Birch celebrates a play against Portland State during UNLV’s season opener Friday, Nov. 11, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV vs. Portland St.

UNLV forward Roscoe Smith defends an inbound pass from Portland State forward Kyle Richardson during UNLV's season opener Friday, Nov. 11, 2013 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

When the head coach begins the first postgame press conference of the season with a joke, it’s a sign at least a few things went right. Although UNLV often looked like a basketball team still finding its legs together, a strong second half gave every Rebel a reason to smile after they started the season with a 67-48 victory against Portland State.

“I’m sure everyone’s going to want to ask about free throws, but I’d prefer to talk about our 3-point field percentage defense, which after this game is leading the country,” Rice said after the Vikings shot 0-for-7 on 3-point attempts.

A stand-up comedian Rice is not but UNLV’s turnaround after leading by only one at halftime left him in a good mood. Rice challenged his team during the break to play with more energy and keep the Vikings off the boards, which was the only thing keeping them in the game. Junior forward Khem Birch responded with 14 second-half rebounds to go along with 13 total points and four blocks.

“The difference was our rebounding margin in the second half,” Rice said.

Once the Rebels (1-0) controlled the glass, Portland State (0-1) fell behind and became even more desperate with its shot selection, hitting only 25 percent in the second half.

Senior guard Kevin Olekaibe hit the game’s biggest shots that expanded the lead from nine to 15 and effectively ended any hope the Vikings had. Both were 3-pointers and both were set up by Birch rebounds.

With less than eight minutes remaining, Olekaibe missed a 3-pointer in the corner but got another wide open look at it because Birch grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to him. On the next possession, Birch corralled a defensive rebound and Olekaibe drilled another 3-pointer to bury the Vikings.

Birch admitted that after a season where he often found himself in first-half foul trouble, he was concerned tonight about putting himself on the bench. Once he made it to halftime without any called against him, Birch let loose.

“I was way more aggressive,” he said.

Olekaibe finished with 14 points on 14 shot attempts, Roscoe Smith had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds and freshman Kendall Smith tallied 10 points, four assists and three turnovers in 24 minutes. Kendall Smith and Olekaibe are taking advantage of the available minutes with Bryce Dejean-Jones out another week or so.

Considering he played 35 minutes without being called for a foul, Birch said he doesn’t think he’ll worry about his foul situation in future games. As long as that doesn’t backfire it’s great news for UNLV, which would love to get something close to his second-half numbers for an entire game. The Rebels just may need to nudge him to unleash that type of affective aggression.

“He’s the most unassuming, team-oriented guy I’ve ever been around for a guy who will play in the NBA someday,” Rice said.

The other thing Birch did extremely well was make free throws. He shot 7-of-8 while the rest of the team made only 6-of-20.

That’s the inevitable question Rice tried to get ahead of to start his press conference. The Rebels shot 50 percent from the line over two exhibition games and actually got worse tonight.

“What do you do when you can’t make free throws?” Rice asked. “Talk about it; not talk about it? Have a free throw exorcism? I don’t know the answers right now but it’s a momentum killer for us.”

In addition to addressing the issue by shooting free throws, Rice said he also showed the players film of free throws. Clearly it didn’t have the desired effect, at least tonight.

It’s a problem, no doubt, but it’s also a small sample size so far. The Rebels would rather have to get over this mental stumbling block — and it is a mental problem — than need to seriously address something like their defense, which was solid tonight.

“The first person who goes up (to the line) has a lot of pressure on him,” said Olekaibe, a career 79.4 percent free-throw shooter who was 1-for-4 at the line. “If he makes his first two then that can be contagious also and everybody starts making them.”

The Rebels’ next chance to fix their free throws is Tuesday night at home against UC Santa Barbara. That’s a step up in competition and the Rebels will most likely still be without Dejean-Jones.

Still, if Birch plays the entire game aggressively and the Rebels get contagious in a good way at the free-throw line, Rice should have another opportunity to work on his one-liners.

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

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