Relatively muted after the hoopla had quieted down, UNLV knew it had let an opportunity go by to put its foot on San Diego State’s throat for the first time in years.
But the Rebels were in no position to complain, and for once, they came out on the right side of a close game against the program that has given them more trouble than anyone of late.
The 14th-ranked Rebels made just enough plays on the defensive end down the stretch as their offensive prowess vanished, escaping with a crucial 65-63 victory over the 13th-ranked Aztecs in front of arguably the best crowd the Thomas & Mack Center has seen in two decades.
The win snapped UNLV’s 6-game losing streak against San Diego State, who had also beaten the Rebels in nine of their last 10 meetings dating back to the 2008-09 season.
“Bottom line is our guys certainly were tired about having to answer the question of ‘Why have you lost six in a row and nine out of 10?'” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Those defensive stops down the stretch … When we’re good, we can always count on our defense. We certainly got knocked down last Saturday and bounced back. The effort was terrific.”
It didn’t always look like UNLV was going to need clutch plays on the defensive end to survive, though.
In a frenzied environment, San Diego State (20-4 overall, 6-2 Mountain West) was the more composed of the two teams out of the gates.
But once UNLV (22-4, 6-2) was able to push the pace to its liking, the depth-challenged Aztecs got winded, and coach Steve Fisher was forced to dip deeper into his bench than normal roughly mid-way through the first half.
Paced by Mike Moser, who started scoring in a variety of ways and had the crowd juiced on several occasions, UNLV took a 37-29 edge into halftime, and extended it out to double digits early in the second stanza.
Entering the game’s final 10 minutes, San Diego State began to chip its way back from a 12-point deficit, but little did anyone know that after a Moser dunk to put UNLV up 62-55 with 6:04 remaining in the game, offense would be at a premium for the Rebels.
Behind big shot after big shot from Chase Tapley, San Diego State crawled back, and his 3-pointer with 1:25 remaining gave the Aztecs a 63-62 lead — their first of the second half.
“We were getting good looks,” Rice said. “We threw the ball inside several times. One thing we talk about all the time is we need to take the shots the defense gives us. We’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys. We got open looks, they just didn’t go in, but we were still able to rely on our defense.”
The first big defensive play came after Anthony Marshall missed a 3-pointer following Tapley’s big bucket. Marshall hopped on a ball knocked loose from Xavier Thames and took it the other way for a nice finish that gave the Rebels a 64-63 edge with 38 seconds remaining.
Out of a San Diego State timeout, Jamaal Franklin tried to pack Chace Stanback down on the block, but Stanback flicked the ball loose. Two fouls later, after Stanback missed the front end of a one-and-one, Justin Hawkins grabbed a key offensive rebound, and after he hit one of two free throws of his own to push the lead to two, he put the game on ice.
Thames had eight seconds to get the ball up the floor for a shot at a tie or the win, but Hawkins never let him past the timeline.
“I think if I would have got back, he would have had enough time to set up and either get a ball screen or penetrate and kick to somebody,” Hawkins said. “So I was just trying to waste time and just turn him back and forth. When he made that spin move, my natural reaction was to go for the ball.”
He picked it clean, and the Rebels were yet again tied atop the Mountain West standings with the Aztecs.
Moser admitted afterwards, though, that there was a lingering pinch with the team, knowing that mid-way through the second half, UNLV could have slammed the door on San Diego State, who has a knack for not going away easily.
“I think that’s always a feeling,” he said. “The team we want to be, that’s what we want to do is put teams away. We don’t want to have our best defender have to get a game-winning steal. It’s still positive, a win’s a win, but we’ll go back and look at the negative things we did and try and change them.”
The only glaring negative from that second half was that after feeding Brice Massamba inside for five straight buckets to open up the second half, UNLV fell into its old habit of becoming too trigger-happy with the 3-point shot. After going 5-of-14 from deep in the first half and shooting mostly rhythm shots, the Rebels forced their way to a 1-of-11 3-point performance in the final 20 minutes.
Positives were plenty, though.
UNLV had 21 assists on 27 made shots and committed only eight turnovers. The backcourt duo of Marshall and Oscar Bellfield, who each played 35 minutes, combined for 14 assists and only two giveaways against a stingy defensive club.
On the other end, UNLV forced San Diego State into 17 turnovers.
The Rebels also recorded 13 steals and nine blocked shots.
Individually, Moser led the way with one of his finest statistical nights of the season, with 19 points, nine rebounds, six steals and four blocks. It came on a day when UNLV’s revamped student section debuted an 11-foot by 8-foot giant marionette of Moser, which was one of the unquestioned highlights in the stands.
Bellfield tallied 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, while Massamba scored 12. UNLV also out-scored San Diego State on the fast break, 16-2.
The Aztecs bot big days from Tapley and Franklin, who combined to score 37 of the team’s 62 points.
“It’s hard when you lose a lead, but our guys just continued to defend and make big plays,” Rice said. “We continued to grow as a team, so much has to do with our leadership and support we get from our bench.”
Helping UNLV along the way was a crowd of 18,577, which arrived early, was fueled from the start and earned heaps of praise from the players and coaches after the win.
UNLV won’t have that kind of support behind it this week as the Rebels head back on the road for a pair of tests. On Tuesday night, the Rebels will face TCU (14-10, 4-4), but the highlight of the week will come next Saturday when they travel to Albuquerque to take on New Mexico (20-4, 6-2), with positioning atop the Mountain West race again at stake. That game will be the second game in Mountain West history to be seen on network television, with CBS carrying the action.
Saturday’s win was nice and all, but the Rebels feel as though they have plenty to still prove on the road, where almost all of their struggles have come this year.
“That’s been our downfall all year,” Moser said. “I think going in with this positive attitude now after winning this game is gonna help us a little bit. We’re gonna take this seriously to try and go out and change that stigma, try to dominate on the road like we do at home.”
As for San Diego State, the Rebels know that there’s a good chance they’ll see the Aztecs again in a few weeks in the Mountain West tournament, potentially adding another chapter to one of college basketball’s hottest rivalries.
And they’re OK with that.
“In the Mountain West tournament, you always want to play the best — I think we feel that we want to go through the best to become Mountain West champions, and I feel like San Diego State is one of the best teams in the conference.
“I think for us to win the championship, we’ll definitely have to go through them again.”