Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 | 9:39 p.m.
The Rebels have now lost four out of the last six to in-state rival UNR, which breaks Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer's heart. Sun sports writers Case Keefer and Taylor Bern join Brewer to get into that 65-63 loss and discuss whether there will be any lasting effects in this big week at home against Boise State and San Diego State.
UNLV’s problems started on the very first possession, as sure a sign as any that the Rebels weren’t ready for what could have been a pivotal game in the Mountain West conference race. Instead they got freight-trained by runaway favorite San Diego State, which sent the largest Thomas & Mack Center crowd of the season home early with the Aztecs' biggest margin of victory ever in Las Vegas against UNLV.
“This is a grown-man game and they’re grown men,” said UNLV freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr., who had 14 points and 10 rebounds.
San Diego State senior Winston Shepard, who played for UNLV interim coach Todd Simon at Findlay Prep, scored the game’s first points with an offensive rebound and putback. The Rebels (13-9, 4-5) never got any better at keeping the Aztecs (16-6, 9-0) off the offensive glass, and it may have been their biggest downfall in a 67-52 loss that San Diego State led nearly the entire way.
The Aztecs dominated the rebounding battle 44-27 and led second-chance points 16-4. Pretty much every time there was a big play to be made, it was the first-place Aztecs going out and making it happen while the Rebels floundered.
“We knew who they were and what to expect,” Simon said.
That never really showed up on the court, though, and now the guy Simon replaced on UNLV’s staff, SDSU assistant Justin Hutson, has helped the Aztecs go 7-0 since returning to coach Steve Fisher’s staff. San Diego State has now won 13 of the last 16 in the series, many of them a credit to following the game plan just like this one.
“Before the game we realized that they want to be an up-and-down team in transition. Our main goal was to try to limit that and try to make them score in the half court,” said SDSU’s Trey Kell, who led his team with 14 points on 3-of-13 shooting. “And then we kind of figured out if we stop them in half court, they’re going to get mad and frustrated. Once they started missing shots, we kind of sensed the crowd getting restless and the players starting to press more.”
UNLV’s offensive struggles in the half court aren’t new, so it wasn’t surprising to see open shots clank off the rim. Senior Jerome Seagears got a lot of open looks and the worst 3-point-shooting season of his career continued with a 1-for-7 night that made him 2-of-12 in the past three games.
As a team, UNLV shot 5-of-23 beyond the arc, and its reliance on those looks was part of the reason the team attempted only nine free throws, making three. The Rebels actually led fast-break points 13-0, but the problem was those were the only shots they were really making while shooting 36.7 percent from the field.
“We had some really good looks that we liked from 3. We’ve got to start making some of these shots,” Simon said.
After Shepard started the game controlling the offensive boards, Skylar Spencer bookended the first half with a buzzer-beating tip-in over a pair of Rebels. In between, UNLV lost its best chance to keep a poor-shooting SDSU team from those easy second-chance looks when junior Ben Carter went down with a left knee injury.
Carter went up for a rebound and came down awkwardly in what appeared to be a non-contact injury that sent him to the locker room with 10:46 left in the first half. The Bishop Gorman High grad couldn’t put any weight on his left leg and is out indefinitely with what UNLV called a knee sprain.
“Obviously it was a pivotal moment in the game, because Ben is one of the heartbeats of this team,” Simon said. “Games like this are made for him, where they’re letting them play, it’s gritty.”
UNLV’s first-shot defense was good enough, with the team holding San Diego State to 15-of-40 shooting. But the Aztecs went 7-of-9 after grabbing offensive rebounds and making a couple of trips to the free-throw line.
The Rebels really only threatened twice in the second half. Both times the deficit was one and a defensive stop was all they needed to send the crowd of 15,243 into a frenzy. Both times SDSU sat everyone down with 3s, the first from Kell on a buzzer-beater with 16:01 left, and then with 11:36 on the clock, 27.1 percent 3-point shooter Darkarai Allen swished another one.
The Aztecs would never lead by less than four points the rest of the way, and their lead got as big as 18.
“We took their heart out once we got up eight to 10 and just kept grinding away. I could tell,” Allen said.
Between this victory and Boise State’s home loss to New Mexico, San Diego State has a clear path to an easy regular-season conference title. It would be the Aztecs’ fifth in the past six seasons.
The halfway point is a far less certain place for the Rebels, whose remaining regular-season games are warm-ups for the conference tournament in this building starting March 9. There could have been a little more to play for between now and then, but San Diego State quickly extinguished those hopes and left the Rebels again to wonder what kind of team they really can be.