Front court contributions help California oust 5-seed UNLV

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UNLV entered Thursday’s East Region game against 12-seed California with more NBA-caliber talent in the front court, led by freshman Anthony Bennett, sophomore Khem Birch and junior Mike Moser.

But they were outplayed by Cal’s Robert Thurman and Richard Solomon, who combined for 23 points and ten rebounds to help lead the Golden Bears to the 64-61 victory in an East Region matchup. As a team Cal (21-11) outscored UNLV 34-18 in the paint, and their early second half move to a zone defense seemed to confuse the Runnin’ Rebels.

Bennett and Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 15 points apiece to lead UNLV (25-10), but Dave Rice’s team shot just 32.2% from the field and far too often failed to get the ball into the high post against Cal’s defense. Shooting 6-of-20 from beyond the arc was something UNLV could have survived had they shot better than 33.3% (13-of-39) from two.

Allen Crabbe (19 points, nine rebounds) and Justin Cobbs (13 points, six assists) are going to lead the way for the Golden Bears offensively, and that’s to be expected at this stage in the season. But Cal will also need performances from supporting cast members like the ones supplied by Solomon and Thurman on Thursday if they’re to remain in the NCAA tournament.

Thurman’s 12 points (all on dunks) are the most he’s scored in a game since posting 14 points in a win over UCSB back in mid-December. But while that’s evidence of his improved play it’s also a major indictment of UNLV’s interior defense.

Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Khem Birch played just 15 minutes, and his absence played a role in UNLV’s struggles with interior defense. With the forms of resistance essentially being Bennett and Moser, Thurman was able to find openings at the rim for multiple dunks.

Next up for California will be either Syracuse or Montana, and while much was made of the Golden Bears’ supposed “home-court” advantage with their Berkeley campus being about 50 miles away that wasn’t the deciding factor.

The performances of Solomon and Thurman are what got the job done. And if those two can duplicate their performances (or come reasonably close to doing so) on Saturday, the Golden Bears can advance to the Sweet 16.

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Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.