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February 17, 2013CANADA IN DA HOUSE - San Diego State has had their way with the Runnin' Rebels in the recent past due to the Aztecs' dominance inside the paint.
It's been awhile but UNLV finally has a winning streak against SDSU, and much of the reason is because of its pair of Canadians roaming down low.
For the second straight game against the Aztecs, Khem Birch proved to be the valuable inside presence that the Rebels had lacked in these types of games in recent years. Birch was nearly perfect on offense (5-of-6 from the field and 6-of-6 from the free throw line), while being a force on the defensive end, tallying five blocked shots and altering numerous others.
If it wasn't Birch doing the damage, it was freshman Anthony Bennett. Bennett didn't play much in the first half after a couple of lapses on defense sent him over to the bench. He made up for it in a big way in the second half, finishing with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
The big difference for Bennett in the second half, and the main reason why he played 18 minutes during that span, was his effort on the defensive end of the floor. He jumped out on shooters, had a pair of blocks and grabbed a steal.
After the game, Mike Moser called the pair of Canadians, "the greatest luxury of in the conference". It's a luxury that the Rebels are happy to have and one that the Aztecs will be happy not to have to contend with.
DESPERATE MEASURES - The Rebels efforts have been questioned a lot lately, especially after Wednesday's blowout loss at Air Force, where UNLV allowed wide open shots over and over.
There was no doubting what the Rebels put into this game, though. Spearheaded by Anthony Marshall's dive over the scorer's table in the first half, UNLV fought as hard as the fans at the Thomas & Mack Center have seen this season.
The trio of Savon Goodman, Justin Hawkins and Moser were the first three off the Rebel bench to start the game and they brought exactly what head coach Dave Rice was looking for out of them.
Hawkins and Moser were more instrumental in this contest than any since Mountain West play started back in early January. After a month of severe struggling from both, they stepped up to the challenge that was in front of them, helping the Rebels match the intensity that the Aztecs brought from the opening tip.
Moser, who hasn't been much of a factor since injuring his left elbow back in December, finished with nine points and four rebounds, but his numbers only told half the story. He showed glimpses of returning back to the special player he had been in his sophomore season with the Rebels.
BACKED AGAINST THE WALL - The Rebels don't have any more room for error as they head toward the month of March. Losers of three of their last four headed into this game, UNLV couldn't afford to suffer a defeat on its home floor in front of an outstanding crowd of over 18,000.
Trailing by as many as 11 in the first half, the Rebels turned it on coming out of the locker room at halftime. And the most impressive thing was that it was a total team effort that helped them get past SDSU.
Whether it was Bryce Dejean-Jones lockdown defense against Jamaal Franklin late in the game or Bennett's explosive offensive output to begin the half, UNLV hit all the right buttons when it needed to.
There is still plenty of work to do, beginning with a home contest against Colorado State on Wednesday, but Saturday's game was about as must-win as any have been on the schedule this season.
This is a start to turn things around. Getting back over .500 in league play was a first step. Now, we'll see if the Rebels can gain some momentum and finish the season strong. It would be better late than never.