SAN DIEGO – Same old story. Same old song and dance.
UNLV played another close, competitive battle with the San Diego State Aztecs Saturday afternoon at Viejas Arena. And for the ninth time in the last 10 meetings with Steve Fisher’s squad, including the last six in a row, they came up short.
Jamaal Franklin’s drive and short floater with three-tenths of a second remaining was the difference in the latest heartbreaker for the 12th-ranked Runnin’ Rebels (16-3, 0-1) and gave the 22nd-rated Aztecs (15-2, 1-0) a hard fought 69-67 victory before a sellout crowd of 12,414 in the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams.
Franklin, who finished with a team-high 24 points and 10 rebounds, scored his winning basket after UNLV center Brice Massamba hit the second of two free throws to tie it, 67-67, with 23.6 seconds remaining.
Fisher then wisely shunned calling a timeout that would have allowed the Rebels a chance to set their defense. That strategy paid off when point guard Oscar Bellfield, who also suffered through a dismal 1-for-12 shooting performance, failed to switch with Mike Moser on a screen at the top of the key that gave Franklin an open lane to the basket.
“In the end, San Diego State made one more play than we did,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “To their credit they found a way to win a very hard-fought game.”
“It hurts a lot,” guard Anthony Marshall said of losing another close one to the Aztecs. “It came down to one possession kind of like it did last year (in a 74-72 loss in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals) at the Thomas & Mack. We’re just going to keep this in the back of our minds but at the same time get better. This game isn’t going to dictate the conference. It’s a long season, one of 14 (games). It’s a marathon and not a sprint.”
The fact that UNLV even had a chance to possible pull it out at the end was remarkable considering the fact the Rebels struggled badly shooting the ball. UNLV shot a season-low 35.3 percent (24 of 68) from the floor as well as a dismal 52.4 percent (11 of 21) from the free throw line. The Rebels, who came into the game averaging a Mountain West best 18.78 assists per game, tied their season low (8) in that category too.
“Our guys battled,” Rice said. “There were numerous times during the course of the game that the game could have gotten away but we showed a lot of character.”
UNLV, which was coming in following a nine-day layoff following a 89-57 win at Cal State Bakersfield, looked rusty out of the gate, managing just four field goals in the first 14 ½ minutes while falling behind, 24-14.
But the Rebels, behind the play of Marshall (game-high 26 points, 16 after intermission) and Moser (9 points, 12 rebounds), rallied to take a 42-41 lead on a Marshall free throw with 15:32 remaining.
The game remained tight after that setting the stage for Franklin’s heroics. The Aztecs, who caused the Rebels some matchup problems defensively with a four-guard offense that featured Franklin at the power forward spot, also got a big game from senior guard James Rahon (22 points, 3 of 5 3-pointers).
“They way we look at it is that we’re 0-1 in the league and they’ve beaten us one time,” Rice said when asked about San Diego State’s recent dominance of the Rebels. “It’s different players, it’s just a situation where they have a good basketball team and they held serve on their home floor. And that’s to their credit.”
The rematch at the Thomas & Mack is Feb. 11. And it’s fair to say the Rebels already have that one circled on their calendar.
“Definitely,” Moser said.