Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
SAN DIEGO — Simply put, UNLV's spirits weren't nearly as down this Wednesday as they were last Wednesday.
In a game they weren't expected to win, the Rebels left Viejas Arena following a 55-49 loss to No. 6 San Diego State not bemoaning defensive effort or urgency as they did a week ago in an ugly home loss to BYU.
Instead, the open wound was something that's gradually become more and more of a nagging issue.
UNLV (13-4 overall, 1-2 Mountain West) had every opportunity to hand the Aztecs (18-0, 3-0) their first loss of the season in front of a wild crowd of 12,414, but missed opportunity after missed opportunity in the game's final five minutes kept the Rebels from getting closer than to within two possessions.
In turn, Lon Kruger's team now finds itself two games behind both SDSU and No. 11 BYU in the league standings out of the gates.
"When we made that long run in the second half, we felt like we had to go take it from them," UNLV senior guard Tre'Von Willis said. "A couple of plays here and there pushed it away, kept it at a two-possession game.
"It's a fight every time we play them. We feel we have to execute more on the offensive end. Defensive end, we felt like we dictated and kind of made them take shots we wanted them to take."
Despite the game's low-scoring nature, UNLV for much of the night looked the part of a team that belonged on the same floor with one of the nation's hottest squads.
Though the Rebels never found a strong offensive groove, it was a close battle up until a pair of 3-pointers from Las Vegas native Billy White gave SDSU a double-digit edge at 40-30 with just under 14 minutes left to play.
All season, the Aztecs have made a habit out of starting games slow then unleashing punishing runs in the second halves to make opponents wilt down the stretch run.
Their lead was as big as 12 points with 12 minutes to play following a James Rahon trey, but the Rebels pulled off a somewhat surprising 9-2 run of their own to close to within five points three minutes later.
During the spurt, Willis and junior forward Chace Stanback hit back-to-back shots and appeared to be climbing out of their offensive slumps.
Unfortunately for UNLV, it was merely a momentary spike.
The biggest misfire during the Rebels' push to get even with the Aztecs came with 2:05 remaining, when at the end of a nice rhythm play set up by an Anthony Marshall block of Chase Tapley in the open floor, Willis blanked on a 3-point try from atop the key. It would have pulled UNLV to within two.
A few more made shots would have gotten the Rebels more credit for a defensive effort that was as good as SDSU has seen from a foe this season.
The Aztecs were a pedestrian 19-of-53 (35.8 percent) from the floor and 4-of-17 from long range. It looked OK in comparison to UNLV's 22-of-61 shooting and 1-of-18 performance from beyond the arc. It was only the third time this season that the Rebels have shot below 40 percent in a game.
Stanback and Willis combined to go 8-of-27 overall and 1-of-11 in the 3-point department.
"You've got to make shots. Making shots changes the complexion of everything," Kruger said. "We had some decent looks there that didn't go. We have to work more to give ourselves a chance to make shots.
"There was a moment there where I thought our guys responded exactly how you'd want. We had it back to four (points), back to five, had several looks at that point and couldn't take that next step."
While both teams were equally ugly on offense, rebounding, yet again in the series, told the story.
Star sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, on top of his game-high 15 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, baiting the Rebels with his words all along the way. He was complemented by senior forward Malcolm Thomas who had a double-double of his own with 14 points and 16 boards.
After SDSU out-rebounded UNLV 120-91 in last year's three meetings combined, the duo of Leonard and Thomas outdid the Rebels on their own on Wednesday night, 33-31.
"We had a lot of missed shots that allowed them to do what they do very well," Kruger added."
Though it didn't result in a win, UNLV survived an inferno of an atmosphere.
Willis was ridden from the second he stepped onto the floor for warm-ups by the SDSU students with chants and signs referencing his off-season legal woes, and the game was marred with a few minor scuffles and three technical fouls on each side.
With arguably the toughest road test of the Mountain West season now out of the way, the Rebels have little wiggle room in the near future where their potential NCAA tournament at-large resumé is concerned.
Starting with Saturday's road game at Air Force, the rest of this first half of the MWC slate then includes games at home against Colorado State and New Mexico next week, at Wyoming and home for Utah to kick off February.
Defense reminiscent of what the Rebels played on Wednesday will keep them in all of those games and maybe be enough to win them, but the ceiling overall is only so high if the recent overall shooting doesn't improve.
"We felt like we went out there and competed hard with them, didn't back down," Marshall said. "The positive thing is we can only go up from here. We shot the ball badly."
• Several San Diego State players after the game continued to play the disrespect card regarding the rest of the nation's opinion of the Aztecs.
"Some people think we are still a joke, but that is just going to motivate us more," White said. "We know we belong. We're going to be here all year and we are going to keep moving up."
Added Leonard: "We're 18-0. Teams know that, so they want to beat us more than we probably want to win, but since we know that, we come out playing even harder so they won't get the win. It's a big win. We're in conference, playing against UNLV and a home loss can easily get you out of the race."
• A couple of Rebels remain in deep slumps.
Senior guard Derrick Jasper had just two points on 1-of-4 shooting in 23 minutes against SDSU. That performance also included three fouls, two rebounds and no assists. He's appeared physically zapped of late, and 9-of-33 from the floor with six assists in the team's last five games from his "point forward" spot.
Also continuing his up-and-down season is sophomore Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas.
He only played four minute on Wednesday, registering two rebounds and not much else. The 6-foot-8, 245-pounder has been Kruger's third big man off of the bench in the last two games and is has only played 22 total minutes in three MWC games.
• Meanwhile, continuing to surge and be the Rebels' most relentless performer on offense is Marshall.
The Mojave High product scored a team-high 11 points with five rebounds in 26 minutes and has scored in double digits in five of UNLV's last six outings.
• UNLV bused back to Las Vegas late Wednesday night and will hold an afternoon practice on Thursday. Following a morning session on Friday, they'll take off for Colorado Springs, Colo., for Saturday's 3 p.m. tip with the Falcons.