No. 6 San Diego State beats UNLV to improve to 18-0
SAN DIEGO – The best start to a basketball season in San Diego State history got a lot better Wednesday night.
Kawhi Leonard had 15 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, and Malcolm Thomas also had a double-double as undefeated and sixth-ranked San Diego State beat UNLV 55-49 in a physical matchup to become the first team in the country to win 18 games.
The Aztecs’ school-record 18-game streak is the longest current winning streak in the nation after No. 1 Duke had its 25-game streak snapped in a 66-61 loss at Florida State earlier Wednesday night. The Aztecs (3-0 Mountain West) are one of four undefeated teams in Division I.
“It means a lot, but we’re not done yet,” senior forward Billy White said. “We’ve still got a lot of ballgames to look forward to. Right now we’re happy with that and hoping to extend it.”
Even with their success so far, the Aztecs apparently haven’t convinced everyone how good they are.
“Some people think we’re still a joke,” White said. “We hear comments all the time – we shouldn’t be in the top 10, we shouldn’t be ranked, but that just motivates us more, keeps us playing harder, keeps making us prove them wrong. We know that we belong here. For right now we’re not going anywhere. We’re trying to move up. We’ve just got to get better to do that.”
Leonard, a sophomore forward, had his 11th double-double of the season and 28th of his career. Thomas, a senior forward, had 14 points and tied his career high with 16 rebounds for his fifth of the season and 15th of his career. White scored 10.
It was the first time in SDSU history that two players had at least 16 rebounds.
“He’s a tough matchup,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said about Leonard. “He’s big and strong, active, athletic. He does a lot of things very, very well. I imagine he’s as tough an opponent to match up with in the conference with a combination of all the tools he has.”
Tempers flared twice and there were six technical fouls called.
After Leonard was knocked down going for a rebound under the Aztecs’ basket in the first half, technicals were called on UNLV’s Chace Stanback and Brice Massamba, and SDSU’s Chase Tapley and White. Leonard made two free throws to give the Aztecs a 22-20 lead.
In the second half, UNLV’s Derrick Jasper fouled Leonard, and the two began jawing at each other, each drawing a technical. Leonard made one of two free throws for a 41-30 lead.
That was part of a 16-6 run in the first 8 minutes of the second half, capped by James Rahon’s 3-pointer for a 44-32 Aztecs lead with 11:52 to play. White had two 3-pointers, Thomas had a slam dunk and a layup and Leonard made three free throws.
“Both us and UNLV are really competitive and just trying to win a game,” Leonard said. “We like each other and we apologized to each other on the court. It was just a heat-of-the-moment incident.”
SDSU beat UNLV in the Mountain West tournament championship game last season to win the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
“We have games that are an arm-wrestling match,” SDSU coach Steve Fisher said. “Nothing comes easy. There is mutual respect for one another, but there is a competitiveness that shows. We must maintain that. This was a terrific win for us. We were able to find a way to get a win and that’s what you have to do to stay undefeated.”
It was Fisher’s 400th career victory, against 231 losses. Fisher, who led Michigan to the 1989 national championship, has turned the Aztecs into the hottest ticket in San Diego in his 12th season.
UNLV (13-4, 1-2) trailed 28-26 at halftime before going cold in the second half, when the Runnin’ Rebels missed 10 of their first 12 shots. Anthony Marshall had 11 points for the Runnin’ Rebels while Oscar Bellfield scored 10.
SDSU outrebounded UNLV 42-31. The Runnin’ Rebels made only one of 18 3-point shots.
The Runnin’ Rebels eventually closed to 53-49 on Massamba’s layup with 1:05 to play.
“We’ve got to make shots,” Kruger said. “Making shots changes the complexion of everything. We had some decent looks there that did not go. You have to give yourself a chance to make shots.”
After UNLV cut the lead to 52-47 on Bellfield’s jumper with 2:49 to go, the Runnin’ Rebels missed eight of nine shots, including going 0 for 4 from 3-point range, in the final 2:16.
“We were getting open looks,” Stanback said. “Everyone was looking for each other, looking for the open man. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to knock them down.”
Stanback was only 4 of 17 and was held to eight points.