San Diego State Beats UNLV For Third Time This Season, Advances to Semis for Eighth Straight Year
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - In each of previous eight MW tournament meetings between San Diego State and UNLV, the team leading at half had won the game.
It was a run bound to come to an end at some point.
Trailing by six at the break, second-seeded San Diego State (25-7) used a 12-0 run to start the second half, built a 35-29 lead over the seventh-seeded Runnin' Rebels (18-15) and never looked back en route to a 67-64 victory in Thursday night's quarterfinal of the 2015 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship at the Thomas and Mack Center.
The Aztecs shot a blistering 57.7 percent (15 of 26) from the field in the second half - including 5 of 7 (71.4) from 3-point range - to hold of UNLV and advance to the MW Tournament semifinals for a league-record eighth consecutive season. San Diego State meets the winner of No. 6 Fresno State (15-16) and third-seeded Colorado State (26-5) at 8:30 p.m. PT.
The Rebels, who missed 10 of their last 17 field goal attempts of the game, have now lost six straight in the series against San Diego State. The Aztecs have won 12 of the last 15 and 15 of the last 19 meetings. They've also won nine of their last 12 at UNLV.
"You have to believe that you're going to find a way, and then you have to produce," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "So we were able to do that. We're proud that we're going to be staying an extra night and playing a game against a really good team tomorrow."
The Aztecs had three players score in double figures, with Aqeel Quinn leading the charge with 21 points. JJ O'Brien had 15 points and was 6 of 6 from the free-throw line, while Winston Shepard chipped in with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
The Rebels refused to wither once San Diego State seemingly seized control of the game, and made a run at the Aztecs midway through the second half. Down six with 11:32 left in the game, UNLV's Chris Wood re-entered the game after sitting with three fouls, and sparked a run by scoring five straight to pull the Rebels within one.
The teams traded 3-point baskets, and after Shepard hit one of two free throws, Wood tied the game with a soft jumper at the 8:05 mark. Quinn nailed a 3-pointer moments later, and once again the Rebels tied it at 49. From there, the Aztecs used a 9-2 run to pull ahead 58-51, and essentially controlled the game from there, hitting eight of their last 11 shots in the game.
"When you knock down shots, your confidence goes up, everybody's fired up on the bench and everybody out there on the floor," Quinn said. "Everybody came together. It was a whole team effort. It was fun to see tonight."
UNLV controlled the tempo in the first half, opening the game on a 9-2 run while the Aztecs struggled to find a groove. The Aztecs pulled within one at the 7:17 mark behind a pair of free throws by Shepard, but the Rebels responded with six straight points to move ahead 24-17 with 3:29 left in the half. San Diego State made one last charge, and got as close as one again, when O'Brien hit two from the charity stripe with 1:29 left, but the Rebels scored the last five points of the half to take a 29-23 lead into the locker room.
San Diego State shot just 6 of 22 (27.3) from the field, including a mere 2 of 7 (28.4) from long-range in the first half. In contrast, the Rebels were 12 for 22 (54.5) from the field in the opening 20 minutes.
"We came into the locker room a little down (and) Coach Fish came in and he said: 'We need to pick it up second half,'" Quinn said. "When we came out, we huddled up together as a unit, all 12, and we just said, 'We got to pick it up. This is not Aztec basketball.'
"At one moment you're up, and the next you're kind of biting your fingernails. It just shows the character of all the guys in the locker room, our coaching staff who puts that mindset on us. So I just love when it's a game like that. When we prevail, it's even better."
UNLV was led by Wood's 21 points and eight rebounds, while Jelan Kendrick produced a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Point guard Cody Doolin had 10 points for the Rebels.
"I thought we battled from the start of the game to the end of the game," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "One thing about our group, (it) had a lot of close games this year; we never quit. That was one of our main goals coming into this season. We're very disappointed with the outcome. We came into this with a lot of confidence. We just came up a little bit short."
The Aztecs, who are on a 6-0 run in the MW Tournament when holding the No. 2 seed, has now won 25 games six times over the last seven seasons. They're on a 34-11 run in games played in March.
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @AP_WG