Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010 | 6 p.m.
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As if San Diego State forward Billy White needed any added motivation before taking on his hometown school Saturday in his house, a phone call from fellow Las Vegas native Darington Hobson certainly didn't hurt his mindset.
Hobson, who had 16 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in leading No. 15 New Mexico to a 76-66 victory over No. 23 UNLV on Wednesday night in Vegas, delivered a clear, concise message.
"He called me and said, 'I got you one, now you've got to get me one,'" White said with a grin. "The first time I played them (this year) I was just coming back from an injury and I really couldn't move. So I've been working on it since.
"I've worked extra hard just for this game."
And while White's abundance of energy spread throughout his team almost instantly, UNLV was again cursed by a lack of fire.
An unsightly 68-58 loss to SDSU on Saturday at Viejas Arena made last Saturday's resounding 88-74 whipping of then-No. 12 BYU feel like that much longer ago.
White, who had just five points and three rebounds before fouling out of the Aztecs' 76-66 loss to UNLV in Vegas on Jan. 13, led all scorers this time around with 19 points. The Green Valley High grad added five rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots in what was his finest performance in nine outings since returning from a high ankle sprain.
In the process, SDSU (18-7 overall, 7-4 Mountain West) pulled into a tie with UNLV (19-6, 7-4) for third place in the league.
"It comes down to needing guys to step up and win battles," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "San Diego State, like the other night, won more battles than we did."
After the Rebels grabbed a 5-2 lead early, the Aztecs took off for good and won the bulk of those aforementioned battles.
A 7-0 run from there gave San Diego State a lead it would never relinquish, flustering UNLV the rest of the way by forcing 14 turnovers, blocking nine shots and out-rebounding the struggling Rebels, 39-30.
"It's a matter of focus, starting off knowing we have to have a good start. If we play catch-up the whole game, the results are going to be the same," said UNLV sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield. "We have to focus on getting that big lead from the beginning and then taking it from there."
Be it getting out to a hot start or whatever else, the Rebels are in need of finding something that works.
After falling behind early, they looked like the same team that was dispatched by New Mexico just three days earlier at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Rebels trailed 33-25 at the half and showed some signs of life right out of the gate in the second frame, scoring five consecutive points to pull within three, keyed by a trey from Bellfield.
But it was short-lived.
Four consecutive made free throws from White, who was 9-of-11 from the stripe on the afternoon, helped the Aztecs keep the visitors at bay, and back-to-back buckets from high-flying freshman forward Kawhi Leonard gave SDSU the momentum for good.
That stretch for Leonard, who posted his 12th double-double of the season with 13 points and 14 rebounds, included a poster jam in between two UNLV defenders which caught the attention of the 9,224 in attendance.
As the deficit grew, the Rebels weren't quite equipped to mount much of a comeback, as it was another off-night for their two biggest offensive guns — junior guard Tre'Von Willis and sophomore forward Chace Stanback.
Willis led the Rebels with 17 points, but a good chunk of that came late with UNLV down for good by double-digits. He was just 5-of-15 from the floor and 1-of-5 from long range.
Stanback is now in a certifiable slump, as his 0-for-7 shooting performance made him 5-of-25 from the field in his last three games. In the second half, he looked a bit off as he began passing up some open looks from long range.
"He had a couple of looks that he looked kind of tentative on," Kruger said. "He's got to shoot the ball for us, so we'll try to get him up and get him going."
As a team, UNLV was just 19-of-54 from the floor and 3-of-17 from outside.
"I felt like we just weren't prepared for the fight today," Stanback said. "We weren't on the same page — just like the New Mexico game."
Stanback was one of several players who, leading up to Saturday's game, said the Rebels weren't prepared for the fight or on the same page on Wednesday.
Yet no one could pinpoint exactly what they thought led to that being the case.
Either way, the later the season goes, the more of a numbers game it turns into for both UNLV and SDSU in terms of NCAA tournament hopes and setting up for potential at-large bids, depending on what happens in next month's Mountain West tournament on the Rebels' home floor.
The Rebels will finish the regular season with five games against the five opponents below them in the conference standings, starting with Wednesday's 7 p.m. tilt at Utah.
The Utes knocked off the Rebels, 73-69, in an upset in Las Vegas on Jan. 16.
As for San Diego State, just like last season, the Aztecs are surging at the right time, as they're now 6-2 since their loss in Las Vegas, with the two setbacks coming by two points apiece against BYU and New Mexico.
They have the tougher regular season schedule remaining between the two, as Steve Fisher still has to take his team to Provo, Utah, to face the Cougars.
But in deciding which of the two teams emerges out of the tie as the conference's third-most viable candidate for a berth in the field of 65, how the Rebels fare seems to be completely up to them. UNLV is just a week removed from being part of a three-way tie in first in the MWC.
"I can't even recall part of this season where we lost two games like that," said UNLV freshman guard Anthony Marshall, who scored 12 points in his second career start. "We can't hold anything back these last couple of games."
The Aztecs have already clearly made up their minds.
"I think (outsiders) are still kind of doubting us," White said. "They might say it's luck, but I know our staff here, our school and our whole community knows that we belong with everybody else. It's not a fluke that we are beating these teams here — ranked teams.
"It's not a surprise to us, because we know we can hang with anybody in the country."