The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Basketball Editor
FACTS & STATS: Site: Thomas & Mack Center (18,500) — Las Vegas, Nevada. Television: CBSCSN. Home Record: UNLV 12-4, SDSU 14-1. Away Record: UNLV 9-3, SDSU 11-1. Neutral Record: UNLV 3-0, SDSU 5-0. Conference Record: UNLV 11-5, SDSU 14-2. Series Record: UNLV leads, 32-19.
GAME NOTES: Despite playing on their home floor, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels aren’t considered the home team tonight as they tangle with seventh-ranked San Diego State in the semifinals of the 12th annual Mountain West Conference Tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Because the Rebels are the third seed in this event and SDSU the second seed, this is considered a neutral-site affair even though the vast majority of the fans in the stands will be rooting for UNLV. The Rebels, who are 12-4 on this floor in 2010-11, but are only 5-3 versus league foes, have won six consecutive games thanks to their 69-53 romp over the Air Force Falcons last night.
As for the Aztecs, a team which is enjoying its best season in program history at 30-2, it doesn’t seem to matter much where they play these days, just as long as they’re not facing BYU, the only team to defeat them this year. In the quarterfinals on Thursday, the Aztecs took care of the Utah Runnin’ Utes with a 64-50 victory which means SDSU has now rattled off three straight wins and victories in 10 of the last 11 outings overall.
As far as this tournament is concerned, San Diego State is the defending champion, having defeated this same UNLV squad in the title tilt a year ago by a score of 55-45. The Aztecs have appeared in two straight championship games and have worn the crown a total of three times, matching the number of title victories by UNLV, which is now 20-7 in this event over the years.
SDSU won both meetings between the teams during the regular season, a 63-57 decision in Sin City back in February and a 55-49 triumph at Viejas Arena a month earlier, which means the all-time series now favors the Rebels by a count of 32-19.
UNLV scored the first points of the night against Air Force and never looked back, holding the Falcons to just nine field goals in both halves. Offensively, the stars for the Runnin’ Rebels were Chace Stanback and Tre’Von Willis with 20 points apiece, the former shooting 6-of-8 behind the three- point line and the latter adding eight assists and seven rebounds to pace the team in those to categories. Not only did UNLV finish the outing at 50 percent from the floor, the team also connected on an impressive 11-of-20 behind the three-point line. Willis continues to lead the team in scoring this season with his 13.3 ppg, while Stanback checks in with 12.7 ppg and provides the group with a team-high 6.0 rpg as well. Oscar Bellfield is not only good for 11.2 ppg, he has handed out a team-high 116 assists which makes his mere 37.9 percent shooting from the floor slightly more tolerable.
Utah may have led by two points early in the meeting yesterday, but that was just temporary as the Aztecs limited the Utes to a mere seven field goals in the first half and 15 points in the frame. The defense was huge for SDSU as it held the opposition to only 39.6 percent shooting from the floor and 23.1 percent out on the perimeter, all while forcing 20 turnovers. Kawhi Leonard stepped up with yet another double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, an effort nearly matched by Malcolm Thomas who accounted for 13 points, 10 boards and a team-best eight assists as well. Billy White almost made it a trio of double-doubles as he turned in 11 points and nine rebounds. Leonard is averaging a double-double on the season with 15.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per contest, while Thomas comes up with 11.6 ppg and another 8.3 rpg for a squad that holds a 7.0 rpg advantage over the competition in 2010-11 and because of that is able to outscore those opponents by more than 13 points per game this season.
There’s no way the Rebels can handle the Aztecs in the paint tonight, even with the Vegas crowd on their side.