Quiet and sometimes too passive a year ago, Khem Birch has changed. He’s a junior leader for UNLV now instead of a sophomore in the supporting cast.
He officially assumed his new role Friday night to get the Rebels’ season off to a positive start.
“When your team needs you more, you’ve got to show up,” he said. “Now, I’m the old guy on the team. It’s kind of weird, but that’s part of life.”
Birch totaled 13 points, 17 rebounds and four blocked shots to lift UNLV to a 67-48 victory over Portland State in the teams’ opener at the Thomas &Mack Center. He was especially dominant in the second half when he grabbed 14 rebounds.
The 6-foot-9-inch Birch started at the center position but showed his versatility by leading the fast break on a couple of occasions.
“I feel like I can impact the game, even by pushing the ball on the break,” Birch said. “I always bring my defense, and I can do damage by scoring on the block. That was just a sample of what I can do.”
In their regular-season debuts for the Rebels, junior forward Roscoe Smith finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds, and senior guard Kevin Olekaibe had 14 points.
Smith’s 11 points helped UNLV grind out a 29-28 halftime lead. He scored on a fast-break layup and converted a three-point play to put the Rebels up 50-36 with 9:25 to go.
The Vikings rallied to within nine before Olekaibe made back-to-back 3-pointers, the second with 6:56 left to stretch UNLV’s advantage to 56-41.
After an unimpressive first half, Rebels coach Dave Rice said he “challenged” the players in the locker room.
“We knew we could play harder. We came out flat, and Coach got on us about that,” Olekaibe said. “We responded in the second half.”
The Vikings held a 23-15 edge in rebounds in the first 20 minutes, but then Birch got more involved in the middle.
“I was way more aggressive,” said Birch, who had six offensive rebounds and played a team-high 35 minutes. “No disrespect to Portland State, but that team should not be outrebounding us.”
Birch, a former McDonald’s All-American and a transfer from Pittsburgh, teamed with Smith, a starter on Connecticut’s national championship team in 2011, to overwhelm the Vikings after the half.
“We’re both energy players,” Birch said. “I want to come with the same energy as Roscoe, and we kind of feed off each other.”
Freshman guard Kendall Smith hit 4 of 7 shots, including both of his 3-point attempts, and scored 10 points. But he also missed both of his free throws, and Roscoe Smith was 3 of 7 at the line.
The free-throw woes that nagged the Rebels in both exhibitions showed up again Friday as they shot 13 of 28, and that was with Birch sinking 7 of 8.
“We’ve all got to be more focused at the line,” Olekaibe said. “I missed three free throws and I usually don’t miss free throws.”
Tim Douglas’ 18 points led the Vikings, who were harassed into 20 turnovers and 0-of-7 shooting from 3-point range.
“I’m sure everyone is going to want to talk about free throws, but I prefer to talk about 3-point field goal defense,” Rice said. “We better start making free throws. I think we believe we’re a good free-throw shooting team.”
The Rebels were without junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, the team’s top returning scorer, because of a hamstring injury. Birch said Dejean-Jones’ absence and an exhibition loss to Division II Dixie State had lowered his expectations.
“I kind of felt like we were going to struggle in this game,” Birch said. “Now, I’m really excited for the future. I realized we’re a very good team.”
Rice was effusive in his praise for Birch, who played like a team leader for the first time in his two years at UNLV.
“He’s the most unassuming team-oriented guy I’ve ever been around for a guy who’s going to play in the NBA someday,” Rice said.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.