For his participation in Thursday’s Mountain West tournament, Khem Birch was rewarded with an ice bath and some painkillers.
The 6-foot-9-inch UNLV junior forward is fine with that, because it means he has to prepare to play another basketball game. Rest? That can wait.
Birch is struggling with a left hip flexor that severely limits his mobility. But he knows his team needs him, and he wants to play.
In the fourth-seeded Rebels’ conference tournament opener against fifth-seeded Wyoming at the Thomas &Mack Center, Birch had eight points, nine rebounds and four assists in 34 painful minutes of a 71-67 victory that put UNLV in today’s first semifinal at 6 p.m. against No. 1-seeded San Diego State.
“It’s tough just getting up and down the court,” Birch said. “It hurts whenever I try to push off. I’m pretty much playing on just one leg right now. But this could have been our last game, so I just pushed myself through it.”
After Saturday’s loss at UNR in the regular-season finale, Birch was handled carefully to get him ready for Thursday’s game. His time on the practice floor was limited, and what little he spent was closely monitored.
As a precaution, he underwent an MRI on Wednesday to make sure the injury wasn’t more serious than first diagnosed. When the report came back negative, he was fast-tracked to Thursday, though the final decision to clear him to play wasn’t made until about an hour before tipoff.
“I really can’t hurt it any more than it already is,” Birch said. “I’m just trying to get through it. I know my team needs me, and I want to be out there.”
Birch said he is surprised by his ability to tolerate the pain.
“Yeah, I didn’t think I was that tough,” he said. “But I’m learning a lot about myself with this injury. You’ve got to play through it.”
Birch’s teammates and his coach never doubted his resolve.
“Khem, he’s a warrior, a big warrior on our team,” said forward Roscoe Smith, who returned to the lineup after missing two games with a concussion and had 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Rebels (20-12). “He definitely battled for us. He did as much as he can.”
UNLV coach Dave Rice said: “I know he’s in a lot of pain. But it would have been hard to win without Khem Birch and what he brought us.”
Birch came out of the game with 12:15 remaining after picking up his third foul. But he returned moments later when Christian Wood landed awkwardly and appeared to injure his left knee. Rice had no choice but to bring Birch back, and he played the rest of the way.
“It’s better for me not to come out, because it’s going to stiffen up if I’m sitting,” Birch said.
Birch said he will rest and rehab the hip before tonight’s game. And if the Rebels beat the eight-ranked Aztecs, he will repeat the process for Saturday’s championship game.
“At this point of the season, you do what you’ve got to do,” Birch said. “I’ve got all summer to heal up.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter @stevecarprj.