No. 21 UNLV beats Northern Iowa 73-59
By ADAM SOBOLESKI
LAS VEGAS (AP) UNLV keeps finding ways to win, despite having poor stretches during games.
Anthony Bennett and newcomer Khem Birch - the Canadian Connection - helped the Rebels jump out to another big first-half lead and then hold on in the second half.
Bennett had 20 points and 12 rebounds to lead No. 21 UNLV to a 73-59 victory over Northern Iowa on Wednesday night in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge.
Bennett, who had three blocks, was 7 of 12 from the field, including hitting two 3-pointers, and all four free throws.
"I just let the game come to me, not to force shots," said Bennett, who is from Brampton, Ontario. "(Birch), that's my boy, although we don't come from the same area. I used to see him at AAU games. Sitting out must be hard. He's fast, he gets steals, and scores."
Birch, from Montreal, had to sit out the fall semester as a transfer redshirt from Pittsburgh, added 11 points, nine rebounds and two steals in his second game of eligibility for the Runnin' Rebels, who have won eight straight.
"Khem Birch was terrific tonight," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "I knew he would be inspired from game one to game two. (Bennett's) only agenda is helping his team to win. He is mature beyond his years. When you have a high-level player like Anthony Bennett, it raises your expectations."
The Rebels struggled at times in the second half after leading 43-22 at halftime.
"We didn't move the ball as well in the second half," Rice said. "Northern Iowa is fundamentally sound. Good teams are going to make a run, but we answered them down the stretch. Our versatility on defense makes us a tough matchup."
Marc Sonnen had 15 points and Anthony Jones added 13 for Northern Iowa (6-5), which is 0-3 against Top 25 opponents this season. The Panthers were held to 33 percent shooting from the field.
UNLV returned to the Thomas & Mack Center after being away for 18 days due to the National Finals Rodeo. The Rebels went 4-0 during that span, winning three road games - two barely - and an easy home game from away from home at the Orleans Arena.
Anthony Marshall had nine points, four assists, and three steals for the Rebels, who escaped two nights earlier with a 62-60 win at UTEP.
"Our coaching staff did a terrific job on short time with the game plan," Marshall said. "The luxury of our guys is playing a lot of positions. Having guys like that makes the game easy. It's hard to keep playing at the same intensity. To be an elite program, we've got to fix it."
Jake Koch had 11 points and eight rebounds for the Panthers.
UNLV jumped to leads of 16-4 and 21-8 in the first 10 minutes of the game.
"Any time you play at home, you have an opportunity to play pretty well and UNLV is terrific at home," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "They've proven they can win on the road, but anytime you play at home, you have an advantage before the game starts."
Bennett scored 14 points with eight rebounds in the first half, including nine points in the last 5:30.
UNLV shot 49 percent in the first half, while Northern Iowa was at 30 percent. The Rebels converted 6 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half.
"(UNLV) has good big men and good guards," Sonnen said. "They play really well together. They shot the ball well. You can just see they really have fun playing well together."
After the Rebels built their largest lead at 24 points early in the second half, the Panthers slowly chipped away, cutting the lead to 62-49 with 5:55 left, but got no closer.
The Rebels outscored the Panthers 28-16 in the paint and 24-15 off the bench.
"(UNLV) did the things they do best and we weren't able to take them away," Jacobson said. "So you give them credit for what they do best ... play in transition and play in the early part of the shot clock."
The Panthers have a rigorous non-conference schedule, playing and losing already to No. 5 Louisville, Stanford, then-No. 19 Memphis and Iowa.
The last time the teams met was in the 2010 NCAA tournament's first round as the Panthers won 69-66 on Ali Farokhmanesh's 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left in Oklahoma City. That was the teams' only previous meeting.
Northern Iowa has had recent success in Las Vegas, winning its past six games, including two in 2010 at the Las Vegas Classic across The Strip at the Orleans Arena.
Updated December 20, 2012