SAN DIEGO – For about 28 minutes Saturday afternoon at Viejas Arena, the UNLV Rebels displayed glimpses of the team many fans had hoped for entering the 2014-15 season.
The Rebels shot 58.8 percent from the floor while defensively keeping San Diego State in check with a 2-3 zone en route to a 24-17 halftime advantage. And after leading by as many as 11 points early in the second half, UNLV still enjoyed a 40-31 lead after a Rashad Vaughn floater with 12:42 to go.
Then the more experienced and mature Aztecs flexed their muscles. And the younger Rebels wilted and ran out of gas.
San Diego State (14-4, 4-1) held UNLV to just two field goals on its final 15 attempts – one coming on a concession layup by Cody Doolin in the final seconds – while dominating the paint to pull out a 53-47 victory.
The loss dropped UNLV (10-8) to just 1-4 in Mountain West Conference play. It also was the fifth loss in six games for the Rebels with the lone win coming at home against lowly San Jose State.
San Diego State’s fullcourt press, which helped force 16 turnovers, paid dividends down the stretch. All five Rebel starters played at least 32 minutes and the fresher Aztecs finished with a 19-0 edge in bench points.
“It’s a 40 minute game, you’ve got to be a grinder,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said.
“We lost some of our intensity down the stretch,” UNLV freshman guard Patrick McCaw, who scored just three of his 15 points in the second half, admitted. “I think the last seven minutes of the game, we started falling off with our energy.”
“I think we got probably tired at the end and the refs made a couple bad calls,” added Vaughn, who finished with a game-high 17 points. “We’re a young team and we just have to mature.”
JJ O’Brien scored 11 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds and Aqeel Quinn finished with 14 points to lead San Diego State, which ended up with a 36-18 advantage in points in the paint and outrebounded the Rebels, 36-25.
Despite its offensive woes the final 12 minutes, UNLV still was in position to pull the upset when Vaughn sank two free throws to tie it, 45-45, with 4:51 remaining.
But forward Goodluck Okonoboh, who had 11 points and three blocks, picked up his fourth foul right after that and the Aztecs capitalized, pounding the ball inside for three straight baskets to build a 51-45 lead as Okonoboh had to back off.
“His defensive post presence is so important to us,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said of Okonoboh. “He probably got a little tired down the stretch.”
Doolin, who finished with just two points, three assists and two turnovers, then missed a 3-pointer and Dakari Allen added a pair of free throws to pretty much seal the win for the Aztecs, who won their 133rd straight game when leading with five minutes to go. McCaw missed a pair of 3-pointers and Vaughn missed another trey after that before Doolin concluded the scoring with an uncontested drive to the basket with eight seconds to go.
“I thought that we played hard,” Rice said. “I thought that we were patient on the offensive end, particularly the first two-thirds or three-fourths of the game. In the end we just didn’t have quite enough to get over the hump.”
The Rebels now head home for a make-it-or-break-it two-game homestand starting Wednesday night against New Mexico. They then host Utah State on Saturday night before heading up to Reno to play the Wolf Pack.
“We’re doing everything right,” Vaughn said. “We’ve just got to worry about the little things and continue to stay focused as a team.”
PATRICK McCAW PHOTO BY JEREMY RINCON