LAS VEGAS – Northern Iowa arrived in Las Vegas with a six-game winning streak in the city that stretched over the last 8 years.
It ended Wednesday night when No. 21 UNLV beat the Panthers 73-59.
Northern Iowa had won its first three games in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge, and the Runnin' Rebels got a bit of revenge for a first-round loss in the 2010 NCAA tournament.
"Anytime you play at home, you've got an advantage before the game starts, and I think that helped them tonight," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobsen said. "I also think they came out in the first five minutes and were more determined than us. .. We didn't defend in transition the way we needed to in the first five minutes in the game, and they're not a team you let get going in transition and do what they do."
It was the third time Northern Iowa (6-5) lost to a ranked opponent this season, after falling to then-No. 2 Louisville on Nov. 22 and then-No. 19 Memphis two days later. The Panthers are 9-16 against ranked opponents since Jacobsen joined the coaching staff in 2001-02.
And despite it being the Panthers' fifth loss in eight games after starting the season 3-0, Jacobsen said he's not concerned one bit and has been pleased with his team's effort.
"We were in a possession game against Louisville, we had two different possessions to take the lead or tie it with under two minutes," Jacobsen said. "At Memphis, we were up big in the first half, and then it's a possession game in the second half. So two of three ranked teams we've played, we were a possession or two away from winning."
Though the Panthers were able to cut UNLV's biggest lead — 24 points early in the second half — to 13 points with 6:10 left in the game, they were never able to recover from the Rebels' balanced scoring attack, which saw 10 players score.
Marc Sonnen led the Panthers with 15 points, while Anthony James chipped in 13.
"We knew they were a good team, I mean they're ranked in the Top 25," James said. "It's a learning experience with a bunch of young guys on our team who are playing against ranked opponents. It's just hard to lose period, whether they're ranked or not ranked."
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 UNLV. 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."
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."