Entering the night as the fourth-best team in college basketball in scoring defense at about 57 points per game allowed, the San Diego State Aztecs appeared for a while late Wednesday night to be unable to solve the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in Las Vegas, as UNLV was out to try and seriously hinder San Diego State’s chances at a Mountain West Conference regular season title.
But Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard took over in the final minutes to allow the Aztecs to dodge the upset and set up a winner-take-all meeting with the New Mexico Lobos on Saturday for first place in the MWC. That game will be in San Diego.
UNLV did more than hang around for the first 36 minutes o f the game, and the Rebels still had a 62-61 lead with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left. But the 10th-ranked Aztecs weren’t about to let opportunity slip away from them and that makes them a dangerous team not only against New Mexico on Saturday, but also throughout the upcoming MWC tournament and the NCAA tournament.
With No. 4 Duke losing Wednesday night at Wake Forest, the Aztecs can continue to move up the NCAA seed lines with more victories. Thursday’s 73-64 triumph at UNLV dropped the Rebels to 19-11, 10-7 MWC, and they may be firmly on Bubble Watch now.
San Diego State (26-3, 15-2) has no such concerns, and needs to make sure it plays hard, tough defense for all 40 minutes (like it usually does) in order to book a spot as a second-seed in the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs uncharacteristically gave up 34 points in the first half to UNLV on Wednesday, before clamping down and holding the Rebels to 28 over the final 20 minutes.
UNLV managed just three points over the final 5 minutes of the game, and didn’t hit a single shot from the field.
Given San Diego State’s offensive talent — Thames led with 19 points and Shepard had 13, while the Aztecs bench combined for 29 points on 11-for-17 shooting from the field — the defense has some margin for error, as Wednesday night showed. But that margin of error will decrease the longer into the postseason the Aztecs go. San Diego State’s defense must be on point from the opening tip to the final whistle.