For the UNLV Rebels, it seemed like a fitting finish in their final regular season game at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Runnin’ Rebels, who have been consistently inconsistent on their home floor, matched No. 10 San Diego State punch-for-punch for over 36 minutes and took a 62-61 lead on a Khem Birch free throw with 3:23 remaining.
But then the ugly side of the Runnin’ Rebels showed up down the stretch, missing free throws and ill-advised 3-pointers as the Aztecs went on an 11-0 run to win going away, 73-64, before a crowd of 16,030.
It was a school-record seventh home loss in 18 games at the Thomas & Mack this season for UNLV (19-11, 10-7), which managed just two field goals over the final 11½ minutes.
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Xavier Thames scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half, redshirt freshman Matt Shrigley finished with 14 points, including four 3-pointers, and former Findlay Prep star Winston Shepard and Dwayne Polee II added 13 points each to lead San Diego State (26-3, 15-2), which hosts No. 21 New Mexico (24-5, 15-2) for the Mountain West title on Saturday night.
Birch led UNLV with 16 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks – his seventh double-double in nine games — while Kevin Olekaibe (11) and Jelan Kendrick (10) also finished in double figures.
“This was from wire to wire a really tough game by two good teams,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said “We got our little spurt at the end of the game. This was a one-possession game, and we made some free throws, they missed some shots.”
“They did a lot of good things and we didn’t down the stretch,” Birch said.
The Rebels, playing without leading rebounder and double-double machine Roscoe Smith (concussion), turned the ball over 16 times leading to a 19-9 advantage by the Aztecs in points off turnovers.
Still, despite that sloppiness and a surprisingly poor outing by point guard Deville Smith (two points, seven turnovers, 0-for-5 shooting), the Rebels found themselves in position to pull off the upset after Birch sank one of two free throws to give UNLV a 62-61 lead.
But Thames answered with a three-point play on a tough slashing drive to basket, and Birch then missed two free throws after getting fouled on the next possession. Shepard then took the wind out of UNLV’s sails with a huge 3-pointer from the left wing to increase San Diego State’s lead to 67-62 with 2:27 left.
“Those free throws and those missed shots killed us,” Birch said.
UNLV can clinch third place and the No. 3 seed in next week’s Mountain West Tourney with a win at Nevada (14-16, 9-8) on Saturday night.