Anthony Bennett (Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS — Moments after Anthony Bennett beat his man down the floor and finished a secondary break with a crowd-pleasing reverse slam, UNLV coach Dave Rice met him with a fist bump as he walked off the floor.
Nobody would have blamed Rice if he'd given Bennett a bear hug.
The way Bennett played in the second half of UNLV's 72-56 Mountain West quarterfinal victory over Air Force is the way UNLV will need him to play if it is going to enjoy success the rest of March.
Bennett emerged from a three-week slump exacerbated by a lingering shoulder injury, erupting for an efficient 23 points on 10 of 14 shooting. More importantly, Bennett played with the concentration and effort he sometimes lacks, sprinting in transition, competing for rebounds and chasing Air Force's shooters on the perimeter.
"The place I'm proudest was his commitment to the defensive end in the second half," Rice said. "He made a great commitment on the defensive end. You have to do that because the way we guard Air Force, we switch five. We've got to get out, certainly their shooters are able to take advantage of big guys."
The breakout game from Bennett came on the heels of three weeks at the end of the regular season during which he hasn't played like a future lottery pick. Bennett scored in double figures only one of UNLV's previous five games, a stretch that included the Feb. 23 game at Wyoming when he injured his left shoulder early and played only four minutes.
The shoulder injury kept Bennett from fully participating in practice the next couple weeks and made it painful for him to raise his left arm above his head. He said after Wednesday's game the ailing shoulder has healed and is giving him less trouble, which contributed to his improved performance.
Bennett certainly looked healthy in Wednesday's second half when he unveiled his full offensive arsenal. Content to set up his teammates and foster good ball movement in the first half, Bennett became aggressive in the second half against an Air Force team shorthanded as a result of first-half injuries to guard Michael Lyons and center Taylor Broekhuis.
The 19-point second-half barrage from Bennett began with a jumper from the high post against Air Force's zone and continued with a pair of pick-and-pop 3-pointers. He later added several dunks and a turnaround jumper off a spin move on the block.
"When Anthony Bennett plays like that on both ends of the floor, he's a pretty special player," Rice said. "Offensively we can run everything through him. He has the ability to score and just the attention he draws on the post and the perimeter. We get things for other guys just because he makes us all better."
One reason for Bennett's success was a lineup change Rice made Wednesday, bringing Khem Birch off the bench and starting Bennett at center and Mike Moser at power forward. The Rebels lose their rim protector and top offensive rebounder when Birch comes off the bench, but Moser is key to the transition offense with his ability to push the ball up the floor and Bennett has more room to work on the block when he's playing at center.
It's a change Rice said he had been pondering for a while but had been unable to implement because injuries had hampered Moser and Bennett.
If Bennett can play at the level he did Wednesday consistently for the rest of March, that could help UNLV tap overcome its bouts of erratic play and emerge as a dangerous NCAA tournament foe. Of course, consistency has been an issue all season for Bennett, who's still immature enough as a freshman to allow his effort level to fluctuate based on who UNLV is playing and how many NBA scouts are in the building.
Asked after Wednesday's game to explain why it seems like a different UNLV team seems to show up every game, Bennett chuckled and said, "To be honest I don't even know."
"I expect us to show up to every game but it hasn't always been like that," he added.
Bennett can't solve those problems by himself, but maintaining the focus and effort he displayed Wednesday for the rest of the month could go a long way toward hiding those issues.
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