Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017 | 10:30 p.m.
San Diego State may not be what it was a few years ago — the Aztecs are a little smaller, a little less athletic and play with a little less edge than they did during their recent run of dominance atop the Mountain West — but it’s a team that can still get down in a defensive stance and grind down opponents over 40 minutes, as Marvin Menzies’ fresh-faced squad learned in last night’s 64-51 loss at the Thomas & Mack Center.
UNLV hung around early and even built a nice little 25-18 lead midway through the first half, but San Diego State continued playing hard-nosed defense, and eventually the Rebels cracked. SDSU closed the first half on an 8-2 run to claim the lead, then held UNLV to just 20 points in the second half on 8-of-26 shooting, allowing the Aztecs to pull away despite a rather meager offensive showing of their own (10-of-26 FGs in the second half).
The Rebels’ ball movement came to a complete stop, as they registered just two assists over an ugly final 20 minutes.
“In the first half, we shared the ball more,” senior guard Uche Ofoegbu said. “In the second half, it kind of stuck to guys’ hands. We didn’t share the ball as well as we did in the first half.”
Ofoegbu finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting, and that was the most efficient offensive performance the Rebels got. Christian Jones went 4-of-13 from the field, Jalen Poyser went 4-of-12, and Jovan Mooring went 4-of-8 with four turnovers in a foul-abbreviated 18 minutes.
With 10 minutes remaining, San Diego State scored to push its lead to 44-40, but the Rebels inbounded quickly to Mooring, who threw a pass ahead to Poyser for a breakaway layup. Frustrated by allowing such an easy basket, SDSU coach Steve Fisher called a timeout to talk it over with his team.
Immediately after that stoppage, San Diego State went on an 11-2 run to extend its advantage to 55-44 with 6:20 remaining. Over the final six minutes, UNLV made just two field goals — a Poyser tip-in and a meaningless Ofoegbu layup at the buzzer.
The Rebels were operating without Mooring for most of the second half. The junior started at point guard for the second straight game, but picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the second half, sending him to the bench for a long stretch and throwing the UNLV offense into further disarray.
Mooring had averaged 5.6 assists and 1.8 turnovers in the first five Mountain West games, but he finished with one assist and four turnovers on Tuesday.
When asked what he would say to Mooring about his performance, Menzies preached tough love.
“You let us down,” Menzies said. “You let us down because you weren’t disciplined enough to play smarter basketball and not foul. We needed you on the floor, son. You tell him the truth: You let us down tonight, and you can’t do it again. You’ve got to be more disciplined than that … But we don’t win at The Pit without him, either. So what are you going to do? Love him and teach him and get him ready for the next game.”
Forward Max Hoetzel kept San Diego State afloat in the first half, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts to keep the Aztecs within arm’s reach. In the second half, guard Trey Kell took over, scoring 16 of his 24 points to put some distance between his team and the stymied Rebels.
UNLV was hoping to build on an impressive road win over New Mexico last week, but the loss drops the Rebels to 9-10 on the season and 2-4 in conference play.
“It’s a big missed opportunity,” Ofoegbu said. “Every conference game, we want to win. It puts us back in the standings. San Diego State, we haven’t beaten them in a while, they’re in our house, we wanted to build off the New Mexico win. We came up short.”
Menzies felt the Rebels started playing undisciplined basketball as they felt the game slipping away.
“I think we weren’t very disciplined in our shot selection. I think the guys went to ‘I’ll get it done’ mode a little bit. I didn’t think we played for each other, so we were taking tough shots.”
For the game, UNLV shot 35.7 percent and made just 3-of-13 from 3-point range. The 51 points represented the Rebels’ second-lowest scoring output of the season (45 against Duke on Dec. 10).
The Rebels will get a chance to bounce back on Saturday when they host Air Force (9-9).
Menzies took a big-picture approach in his post-game press conference, stressing a need for continued improvement throughout the season.
“In the state of the union for where we’re at, we have to find silver linings,” he said. “We’ve got to stay positive and we’ve got to stay motivated to get better and play our best basketball in March. You know what? We win three games, we win four games in March, nobody cares what happened tonight. Nobody cares. It’s all about getting better and getting better and getting better. And that’s what we do, that’s what I do, that’s what my teams do, and that’s what this team will do.”