Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
- BOX SCORE: San Diego State 63, UNLV 57
- INSTANT ANALYSIS: Great effort, energy from fans not enough against talented SDSU
- ‘Relentless’ D.J. Gay leads San Diego State in win at UNLV
- LIVE GAME BLOG: UNLV crumbles late, No. 6 SDSU prevails with 63-57 win at the Mack
- 2010-11 UNLV Schedule
- All Sun UNLV men's basketball coverage
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The UNLV basketball team had sixth-ranked San Diego State on the ropes in the closing minutes at the Mack, but some puzzling late shot attempts doomed the Rebels in a 63-57 loss. At 18-7 overall and 6-5 in the Mountain West, is UNLV still NCAA tourney-bound? Ryan Greene, Ray Brewer and Case Keefer discuss, plus talk about how high 25-1 SDSU's ceiling really is.
Another opportunity for UNLV to solidify its NCAA tournament résumé has come and gone, and after a tough-to-swallow 63-57 loss at home to No. 6 San Diego State on Saturday, the word "bubble" is now officially a part of the local vernacular.
It's the third season in a row in which the Rebels looked like a shoo-in for the Big Dance late in the non-conference season, only to find themselves backed against a wall come mid-February.
"We've just got to win, that's all it is," junior guard Oscar Bellfield said quietly following the wrenching loss to the Aztecs. "We've got to stay together, keep our composure and just win."
The wiggle room the rest of the way is almost gone after the Rebels (18-7 overall, 6-5 Mountain West) let a game that appeared to be theirs in the closing minutes slip away in painful fashion.
For the first 30 minutes, the Aztecs (25-1, 10-1), played up to the number next to their name, battling injuries and foul trouble. They led 49-39 and had kept a sell-out crowd of 18,557 at the Thomas & Mack Center silent for much of the way.
Then, the Rebels made a gritty push by beating SDSU at its own game.
Instead of relying on the 3-point shot as they've been prone to do in several recent outings, UNLV fed off of the monster minutes played by junior reserve forward Brice Massamba.
Massamba, who has been a non-factor for much of MWC play, came from the abyss to score 11 points and pull down six rebounds. He scored on second-chance buckets, created opportunities for himself and cleared things up underneath for teammates to either score at the rim or draw repeated fouls.
As UNLV continued to stay away from the run-and-gun style it typically prefers, SDSU's armor was dented time and time again.
The biggest blow for the Aztecs came with 3:45 left, when senior forward Billy White was called for his fifth foul on the offensive end heading into the game's final TV timeout. It took out a leg from SDSU's already depleted front-court. The team was without junior Tim Shelton for the third straight game with a foot injury, while senior Malcolm Thomas was playing with four fouls of his own.
After the break, Tre'Von Willis kissed a floater off the glass in traffic to give UNLV a 55-54 lead with 3:07 to play. It was the Rebels' first lead since going up 2-0 in the opening minute.
"I don't know if we had the game, but we had it in our minds that we were gonna fight and battle for it," Willis said.
What transpired after UNLV obtained the lead, though, was perplexing in several ways.
The Rebels were on the verge of beating the Aztecs in a grinder, which many thought they could not do. But in the final 2:24, after chipping back into the game by attacking the Aztecs' size, six of their final seven field goal attempts were 3-pointers.
A good portion of them were open looks, for what it's worth. But all of them missed, which is all that anyone will remember.
"I kind of felt like some of the shots were good shots," said Bellfield, who was responsible for one of the misfires. "I don't think it was a bad decision at all."
Making UNLV's failure to close the game out even more perplexing was that it had pinned SDSU's offense to the mat for the game's final 10 minutes.
Sophomore guard James Rahon, who started in place of the injured Chase Tapley, put away a layup with 9:50 left in the game. After that, a Rahon 3-pointer with 4:48 left was the Aztecs' only made field goal.
SDSU answered time and time again from the free throw line, going 9-of-10 from the stripe as a team after Willis had given UNLV the lead.
"This team is definitely deep, and we went deep into the bench, played without Tim and Chase, Billy fouled out, players had to step up today," said SDSU guard D.J. Gay. "It does show that we have a variety of weapons on this team and we can win in different ways."
Gay was the steadying influence for SDSU all night, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot en route to a game-high 20 points. He also went 8-of-9 from the free throw line. The most important stat on his line, though, was the zero turnovers in 40 minutes played.
Star sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard had 14 points and 10 rebounds, giving him his fifth double-double in five career games against UNLV.
Willis led the Rebels with 13 points, while Bellfield added 12.
It was an off night for UNLV leading scorer Chace Stanback, though.
After having his best offensive night in MWC play on Wednesday with 24 points in the win at TCU, Stanback was held to five points on 2-of-8 shooting against SDSU. No one has bottled Stanback up quite like the Aztecs, as he's now 6-of-25 from the floor and 0-for-7 from deep against them this season.
UNLV as a team was 22-of-58 from the floor and 1-of-15 from 3-point territory. The Rebels are 2-of-33 from deep in two games against the Aztecs this season.
UNLV has now dropped four in a row to SDSU for the first time in their 51-game series, with the Aztecs holding the Rebels to fewer than 60 points in all four of them.
SDSU remains neck-and-neck with BYU in the driver's seat atop the MWC standings, but UNLV's postseason hopes took another hit in a spot where there was tons of ground to potentially be gained.
Earlier in the day, UNLV's postseason profile got a major boost when No. 13 Wisconsin — who the Rebels knocked off at home in November — defeated top-ranked Ohio State in Madison, Wisc. It opened a huge window of opportunity for the Rebels to take an even bigger step by gaining a marquee MWC win.
Instead, now, Lon Kruger's club enters the final five-game regular season stretch and subsequent MWC tournament with plenty of work left to do, then hope that it's enough.
UNLV will host Air Force at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, but then have a crucial two-game road swing involving trips to face Colorado State next Saturday, then New Mexico the following Wednesday.
Currently, CSU is alone in third place in the league at 7-3, thanks to a huge home victory over New Mexico on Saturday.
UNM and UNLV are tied in fourth, two games behind the Rams in the loss column.
In the race for the league's potential third bid to the NCAA tournament field behind BYU and SDSU, the Rebels have two small edges on both the Rams and Lobos: They will play the MWC tourney at home, and don't have to play the Cougars or Aztecs again. CSU and UNM each have two games left against the league heavyweights.
Still, to many, the fact that the Rebels are in this position is considered disappointing as they again meander through what's become familiar, pressure-packed February territory.
"Don't give up," Bellfield said of what he's learned from the similar situation in the past two seasons. "You've got to keep fighting, take it and keep playing."