Photo by Gregory Bull/AP
SAN DIEGO—The cast of characters may have changed some, but the result sure didn't for UNLV in what has become an increasingly frustrating rivalry with San Diego State.
The 12th-ranked Rebels, thanks to an awkward-yet-spectacular finish in the lane by SDSU's Jamaal Franklin in the game's final second, fell to the 22nd-ranked Aztecs on Saturday, 69-67. It marked the ninth loss for UNLV in its last 10 meetings with SDSU.
"San Diego State's a good team, they made some runs, we made some runs, and it just came down to one possession," UNLV junior guard Anthony Marshall said. "Just like it always does."
It marked the second meeting in a row between the two that was decided by just two points, which makes things all the more excruciating for UNLV (16-3), who as a team put on arguably its ugliest offensive performance of the season.
The Rebels were 24-of-68 from the floor, shooting below 40 percent (35.3) for just the second time this season. They were 8-of-27 from long range, hoisting 15 of those attempts during a first half in which they rarely looked comfortable on the offensive end. San Diego State packed in its defense, basically daring the Rebels to hoist 3-pointer after 3-pointer, knowing how badly they've struggled to shoot in their gym in recent years.
They also committed 14 turnovers across from only nine assists—an uncharacteristically small number of helpers for the Rebels this season. The final stinger came from the free throw line, where UNLV, who entered shooting 70.8 percent from the stripe as a team, was 11-of-21.
"You look at our other losses, it's kind of the same," Marshall continued. "We really couldn't make a shot, kind of rushing things, a turnover here and there. We just need to eliminate that stuff."
The tone was set early, when SDSU (15-2), in front of a frenzied, fueled crowd of 12,414 at Viejas Arena, jumped out to a 10-3 lead.
UNLV had a tough time getting settled both physically and emotionally. Between starting the game 4-of-24 from the floor and Brice Massamba picking up an early technical foul for taunting Xavier Thames after a blocked shot, the Rebels were never in command.
Still, they went to the halftime locker room down only five at 34-29. Thanks to an above average defensive effort, SDSU wasn't setting the nets ablaze, either.
"I thought we just came out kind of rushing things," Marshall said. "In a game like this, you're really excited, you're anxious, your blood is flowing and you get a little excited. We were kind of rushing things, where in the second half you saw us slow down, make some things happen."
Four minutes into the second half, UNLV had tied it up. The Rebels were making more of an effort to pound the ball inside against a smaller Aztec team than the ones they'd encountered the past three years. Also, UNLV's depth and conditioning began to work in its favor, as SDSU was relying on a strict seven-man rotation.
Getting over the hump from there, though, was the issue. It mirrored the recent series between the two programs as a whole, really, as SDSU simply made a little more happen.
UNLV has been a second half team all year long, but outside of Marshall, no one consistently brought it offensively.
The surging 6-foot-3 guard hit big shot after big shot en route to tying a career high with 26 points. He grabbed rebounds and provided stellar defense.
But on a day where no one was perfect, he also had five turnovers.
The entire second half, no one could step up enough to consistently supplement his scoring, either.
Chace Stanback, the team's leading scorer and one of the nation's hottest shooters coming in, continued to find little success at Viejas. He scored seven points during a hot stretch late in the first half, but was invisible after the break. He went 3-of-9 from the floor and 1-of-4 from deep, making him 7-of-33 and 1-of-11, respectively, in three career games at SDSU. He also wound up sitting the closing minutes of the close game, getting pulled for the last time after SDSU's Xavier Thames crossed him up and hit a crucial mid-range jumper.
"Just a situation where I substitute on feel and play a lot of guys and felt like the rotation was such that we wanted to have Justin Hawkins in the game," Rice said. "I have not lost any confidence in Chace at all. Chace is one of our most important players and will continue to be."
Stanback's fellow senior, Oscar Bellfield, struggled far worse.
In 35 minutes, Bellfield handled his point guard duties with four assists and only two turnovers, but he couldn't find a scoring touch. In one of his toughest offensive performances in four years at UNLV, Bellfield went 1-of-12 from the floor and 1-of-6 from 3-point range.
He also contributed to the defensive miscue that ultimately cost UNLV a 1-0 start in league play.
After Massamba split a pair of free throws to tie the game with under 30 seconds to play, SDSU held for the last shot. Bellfield and Mike Moser miscommunicated on a switch off of a ball screen that cleared the way for Franklin to knife down the right side of the lane and flip in the game-winner.
It was the final touch on a 24-point, 10-rebound performance for Franklin. SDSU also got 22 points from James Rahon, who hit several key jumpers on the afternoon.
"We kind of messed up a switch situation," Moser said. "Just kind of messed up. He got a step on someone and ended up finishing."
Moser added that SDSU not calling a timeout before running the play came as a surprise to him and his teammates.
The final result felt eerily similar to the bevy of recent losses to San Diego State, and many might chalk part of it up to the Aztecs providing a mental hurdle of sorts that the Rebels simply have trouble clearing, as they've rarely played well against them both home and away.
"The way we look at it is we're 0-1 in the league, and they've beaten us one time," Rice said. "It's different players, it's just a situation where they have a good basketball team and they held serve on their home court. And that's to their credit."
UNLV's players and coaches were all visibly frustrated while leaving the arena to board a bus back to Las Vegas, but also appeared to have perspective in the sense that an 0-1 hole, especially with as balanced as the league is this year, can be covered up quickly.
The Rebels will host TCU on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in their first game at the Thomas & Mack Center since Dec. 28, then welcome in New Mexico, who opened up league play with a 10-point win at Wyoming on Saturday, giving the Lobos (15-2) 13 straight wins.
Meanwhile, they'll patiently await San Diego State's trip to Vegas on Feb. 11, which could end up being the last time the Rebels and the Big West-bound Aztecs meet for a while.
"We're going to keep this in the back of our minds, but at the same time just get better," Marshall said. "Like I said, this game is not going to dictate the conference (race). It's a long season, this is one of 14 (games). It's a marathon, not a sprint."