SAN JOSE, Calif. — In the back of our minds, we all supposed it would end this way — with a long string of missed jumpers and too many empty offensive possessions. But not many believed the end would come so quickly.
Haunted all season by offensive inconsistency, UNLV went ice cold at the most inopportune time, shooting blanks for most of the second half on Thursday as 12th-seeded Cal upset the Rebels, 64-61, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
After being tied at the half, 28-28, UNLV shot just 28.6 percent in the second half against Cal’s zone defense, and the Rebels went one 11-minute stretch without making a single field goal. UNLV missed 16 straight shots during that span, as Cal built its lead as high as nine points.
A late run by the Rebels pulled them within three in the final 20 seconds, but Cal coach Mike Montgomery had his Bears foul rather than let UNLV launch a potential game-tying 3-pointer. The move paid off, as UNLV got as close as 62-61, but never got their chance to tie the game.
Anthony Bennett, the Rebels’ leading scorer on the season and a likely NBA lottery pick, finished with 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting, but most of his damage came late, during UNLV’s frenetic comeback attempt. The Golden Bears effectively took him out of the game with their zone, packing the middle and daring the UNLV shooters to make them pay.
The Rebels finished just 6-of-20 from 3-point range (30.0 percent), and an even uglier 11.1 percent in the second half (1-of-11). Freshman guard Katin Reinhardt went 3-of-8 from deep, while sophomore Bryce Dejean-Jones went 2-of-5. Dejean-Jones tied Bennett for team-high honors with 15 points; Reinhardt had 11. They were the only three players to hit double figures for UNLV.
Unlike the Rebels, Cal appeared to get more comfortable on offense as the game went along. After shooting 40 percent in the first half, the Golden Bears upped it to 48.3 percent after the break, led by 12 second-half points from Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe. The junior guard scored a game-high 19, and the Rebels never figured out a way to stop him from coming off screens and driving into the paint.
And with two seconds left and Cal leading by a single point, Crabbe nailed both free throws to provide the final margin. UNLV’s desperation inbound pass was picked off at mid-court, and the Rebels were sent packing earlier than anyone expected.
Cal big men step up
Any way you analyzed this game, it was hard not to predict that UNLV would have a huge edge in the paint. Anthony Bennett dominated Cal the first time around, and the addition of Khem Birch only appeared to make the Rebels’ interior even stronger. But Cal was able to negate Bennett’s offense by playing a tight zone defense, and as the Rebels were in the midst of missing 17 straight shots in the second half, Dave Rice had to bench Birch in an attempt to get more scoring on the floor.
In the end, Cal out-scored UNLV 34-18 in the paint. Forwards Richard Solomon, David Kravish and Robert Thurman — none of them known for their offensive abilities — combined for 29 points on 14-of-20 shooting.
The Bears’ bigs finished with gaudy stats, but it was junior guard Allen Crabbe who did most of the heavy lifting. Cal’s favorite play was curling Crabbe off an elbow screen and letting him dribble into the middle. From there, Crabbe could either take a short jumper, drive all the way to the rim or draw the defense and kick to one of his big men. More often than not, he chose the third option, creating numerous uncontested dunks for Solomon, Kravish and Thurman.
Crabbe finished with a game-high 19 points and four assists, but his impact was even greater than the numbers show. UNLV had no answer.
Part of the reason Crabbe was able to exploit the middle so consistently in the second half was because Birch wasn’t there to defend it. After a stellar first half that saw him grab four rebounds and block four shots, Birch was forced out of the game by the Rebels offensive ineptitude. Dave Rice played Mike Moser 14 minutes in the second half in an attempt to jump-start the offense, and that allowed Crabbe to go off at the other end.
“I guess [Rice] wanted to utilize Mike and A.B. against the zone,” Birch said. “They’re more scoring threats, so he probably figured that we’d score more by having those two in there.”
Birch saw just six minutes in the second half and finished with five points, six rebounds and four blocks. He admitted that it was frustrating watching from the bench as Cal’s big men scored so many easy points in the paint.
“I’m a shot blocker,” Birch said. “I’m a defensive guy, so when you see that type of stuff, it irritates you.”
The 2012-13 season is over, and it’s only natural to start glancing toward next year. The Rebels are bound to look very different eight months from now — not only are they losing ironman point guard Anthony Marshall, they could also see Bennett and Moser head to the pros. Senior swingman Justin Hawkins will graduate, as will senior center Quintrell Thomas.
The leaders of next year’s team (on paper) will be Katin Reinhardt and Bryce Dejean-Jones, who will all-of-a-sudden become the Rebels’ most experienced players. Birch is another good building block on the interior, but UNLV will still have six or seven rotation spots up for grabs.
With a good group of freshman recruits coming in, and some talented transfers set to gain eligibility, there’s a chance the Rebels could content for the Mountain West crown again next season. But there’s a long way to go between now and then.
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How Will Khem Birch Impact Rebels’ Defense Against Cal?
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