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January 17, 2013

Tough choice pays dividends

With eight minutes left and the game hanging in the balance, UNLV head coach Dave Rice toyed with a decision that most wouldn't have even pondered.

In a game that will most likely have MWC champion ramifications, two of UNLV's most acclaimed players, junior forward Mike Moser and freshman Anthony Bennett, found themselves as part of the cheering section on the bench for most of the stretch run.

Shortly after a 12-0 run mid-way through the second half by the Aztecs, the Rebels found themselves down for the first time since the latter stages of the first half. They were at a point with which many UNLV fans are all too familiar when the Rebels take to the road - the point of implosion.

With just under nine minutes remaining, Rice pulled Bennett, presumably for a last rest before the final minutes. But Bennett only returned for a minute and a half at the five minute mark with the Rebels up two points. When he departed for good after one of his two rebounds, the Rebels were tied at 73 with 3:43 remaining in the contest. Sophomore Khem Birch, who commanded the defensive post for the Rebels, replaced Bennett for the rest of the game. Bennett finished with nine points and two rebounds in 20 minutes of action.

Moser replaced Bennett with just under nine minutes to play and promptly missed two jumpers. Less than two minutes after re-entering the game, Moser took a seat on the bench and watched the game unfold. Moser finished with nine points and seven rebounds.

Rice elected to go with a mix of defensive minded and veteran players down the stretch - Anthony Marshall, Justin Hawkins, Khem Birch and Bryce Dejean Jones.

Though Marshall gritted the Rebels to the rare road victory at Viejas with a season high 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists, it was the defensive presence of Birch in the paint that turned the game. Credited with only five blocked shots, Birch altered far more shots than that. What's more, the Aztecs grew apprehensive of attacking the rim off the dribble. With SDSU hitting only 3-19 three pointers, their next best option was neutralized by the long-armed 6-10 Canadian.

In the last five-plus minutes of the game, the Aztecs only managed six points on two free throws, a Jamal Franklin layup and a Winston Shepard bank shot.

It's not often that a coach will leave himself so vulnerable to criticism by shelving two of his most powerful weapons, but it's a move that gave UNLV their first win at Viejas since 2008.



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