Birch plays safety net for UNLV Rebels

SAN DIEGO – When UNLV went with a small lineup down the stretch in an effort to match up with San Diego State’s perimeter strength, Khem Birch was often the only big guy on the floor for the Rebels.

He played like a giant at times late in the game Wednesday night as UNLV ended a four-game losing streak at San Diego State with an 82-75 win at Viejas Arena.

Birch had 12 points, five blocks and five rebounds. None was more important than the missed Anthony Marshall jumper that Birch corralled under the basket and put in to stretch the Rebels’ lead to 80-75 with 25 seconds remaining.

Had the Aztecs rebounded the miss, they would have had a chance to tie the game.

Birch wasn’t even aware of the enormity of the play.

"I didn’t even know it was that special. I just got the rebound, put it back up and ran back to play defense," he said.

The 6-foot-9-inch sophomore center is known to do his best work at the defensive end. The five blocks are a quantitative measure of his effectiveness on defense, but his true impact can’t be measured by numbers. San Diego State consistently had trouble finishing at the rim, largely because of Birch’s presence.

"The biggest thing he does is shores up our defense," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "He protects us when we make a defensive mistake, or we’re aggressive and deny a passing lane and they go back door or drive it. He just cleans up a lot of the mess.

"He’s put that in the mind of opposing players, and when he’s out there, we’re a much better defense."

It’s also in the mind of Birch’s teammates, who know he will be around the rim if they make a mistake on the perimeter.

"Anytime you have a big guy that’s able to block shots or alter shots like that, it really helps you out a lot," senior guard Justin Hawkins said. "We definitely know if someone goes by you once or twice, Khem’s going to be there."

San Diego State shot just 38.8 percent for the game, including 37.8 percent in the second half.

"Khem Birch gave them a shot-blocking presence. Birch had five blocks and altered a couple of our shots," San Diego State senior guard Chase Tapley said. "Our players were probably thinking about him while shooting a layup, but those are shots we have to finish. They are the easy points, and little points like that make you win or lose."

Birch’s minutes were limited by foul trouble in the first half, along with frontcourt mates Mike Moser and Anthony Bennett.

Moser and Bennett also found themselves on the bench for much of the second half, particularly the final few minutes. Rice said he decided to go small in an effort to match San Diego State’s speed.

Birch added just enough on the inside to help the Rebels end their losing streak in San Diego.

"It feels special," Birch said. "J-Hawk just told me he’s now 1-3 here. This was his first win. I’m just so happy for him."

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.

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