Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 | 11:59 p.m.
The mistakes already in the books don’t matter with a one-point lead and 3:22 on the clock. The plays, or errors, still to come will determine the outcome, and with the game hanging in the balance it was the 10th-ranked Aztecs who went out and took the victory.
San Diego State (26-3, 15-2) outscored the Rebels 12-2 over the final three-plus minutes to take a 73-64 win that sets up a home showdown with New Mexico for the outright Mountain West title Saturday. Meanwhile, UNLV (19-11, 10-7) will head to UNR hoping to avoid a season sweep and earn the No. 3 seed in next week’s Mountain West tournament at the Mack.
As much as this program-record seventh loss at the Mack stings, the Rebels are trying to remind themselves that their NCAA Tournament hopes were already down to what they accomplish when the league moves in to replace Jerry Tarkanian Court.
“It matters more next week than it did today,” said junior Khem Birch. “It’s kind of messed up saying that but it does.”
Birch had another solid game with his 16th double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) of the season. And as usual, his six blocks only reflect a fraction of the shots he affected at the rim.
But Birch also had a quarter of the Rebels’ 16 turnovers, the most they’ve committed since Dec. 23. Twelve of those came in the first half as UNLV’s guards continued to dribble into the Aztecs’ full-court trapping press. SDSU turned those 16 turnovers into 19 points.
“They do a very, very good job with their press because they’ve got a lot of long, athletic bodies,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice.
SDSU’s Xavier Thames put the Aztecs ahead for good on an and-one finish that he was finally able to get past Birch. Findlay Prep product Winston Shepard followed with a 3-pointer after a pair of missed free throws from Birch and those two polished off the Aztecs’ win. They combined to score 32 points, including SDSU’s final 12.
“Thames is a great player, probably the best guard in the league,” said Birch. “… He knows what to do down the stretch and this game he did it again.”
UNLV made only seven field goals the entire second half, surviving instead on a surprisingly stellar night at the free-throw line. The Rebels shot 78.3 percent for the game (18-of-23) but four of those misses, all by Birch (6-for-10) came in the final six and a half minutes.
Birch made several trips to the free-throw line because the Aztecs didn’t allow him much else. They double-teamed him in the post on nearly every touch in the second half, forcing him to find open teammates. And when he did, those guys generally weren’t able to convert, as the Rebels shot 25.9 percent in the second half.
For awhile this was another classic in the series for reasons no one could predict.
UNLV was playing without leading rebounder Roscoe Smith and yet it scored 17 second-chance points to SDSU’s six. Also, Daquan Cook and Jelan Kendrick combined to make four 3-pointers, shots that the Aztecs’ scouting report was surely OK giving up.
They were crucial to keeping this game close because Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith once again fell flat against the Aztecs. In their last meeting, those two combined to shoot 12-for-44. This time the attempts were way down (12) but they only had one made basket between them and a combined 10 turnovers.
“We’ve got to give San Diego State a lot of credit,” Rice said.
And while it was the Aztecs’ stars making the plays down the stretch, they wouldn’t have gotten there without 14 second-half points from Matt Shrigley. After making almost no impact in five first-half minutes, Shrigley caught fire with five straight baskets, including four 3-pointers.
When the pressure increased San Diego State rose to the occasion as it has for most of the season. At the same time, UNLV is familiar with this scene, watching a winnable game escape its grasp because of this, that or the other.
On Senior Night, Carlos Lopez-Sosa played probably his most efficient game of the season with a handful of points, rebounds and hustle plays in 11 minutes, and Kevin Olekaibe scored 11 on 4-for-11 shooting. Just like last year’s seniors, this duo exit the home regular-season finale on the wrong side of the ledger.
It could have also been the last true home game here for a guy like Dejean-Jones, who stormed off the court as teammates tried to console him. It’s true that next week’s results matter more than tonight’s, but UNLV had hoped to take some momentum into that tournament.
“We’ve got to rally the troops,” Rice said, “and not a lot of time to do that.”