LAS VEGAS – For the San Diego State men’s basketball team, Saturday’s 63-57 win against UNLV wasn’t just any other conference road game.
Down by one with 3:07 remaining in the game, in a hostile environment with 18,557 fired up fans yelling at ear-splitting levels, the nail-biting victory was something else altogether for SDSU.
“To play in front of a crowd like this, it gave us an NCAA (Tournament) environment, something that we’re going to have to play in down the road,” senior point guard D.J. Gay said. “We all enjoyed it and it definitely prepared us for our future.”
In the last 9:49, the Aztecs only had one field goal, a 3-pointer by sophomore guard James Rahon. SDSU blew a 10-point lead, and its top two big men, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White, played with four fouls each for half of the second period. And yet the Aztecs still managed to win the game.
“We’re a team that can squeak one out,” Gay said. “We can play a game down to the wire and still have the ability to maintain our focus and come out with the win.”
The reason SDSU was able to eke out the win was the team was able to do something that it has had trouble doing in several games this season: hit free throws.
Eleven of the Aztecs’ last 14 points came from the charity stripe, and SDSU was 20-22 (90.9 percent) for the game overall.
“Day after day in practice we spend countless time at the free throw line and I think tonight I just got into a comfort level and so did my teammates,” Gay, who had ice water in his veins at the line all night, said. “Every time we stepped to the free throw line we were confident.”
In the first half, the Aztecs were clearly the better team. They shot 54.2 percent from the field, out-rebounded the Rebels 17-14 and held UNLV to 20 percent shooting from long distance as they carried a 34-27 lead into halftime.
In the first five minutes of the second half, SDSU increased its lead to 11 and looked like it would pull away even further. The Rebels used an 8-0 run to make the game 47-49 with seven minutes remaining, however, and even took the lead at the 3:07 mark.
“UNLV always does a great job of taking teams off their offense with their pressure and being able to deny and keep people from doing what they want to do,” Gay said.
But that’s when the Aztecs got hot at the line, and the Rebels, who were 1-15 from long distance for the game, hoisted up six 3 pointers and missed them all. With SDSU up by four with 12 seconds left, senior center Brian Carlwell blocked a layup by UNLV’s Anthony Marshall and Rahon corralled the ball, was fouled, and hit both free throws to seal the victory.
“We’ve got a good team that finds ways to win,” head coach Steve Fisher said. “That’s not always pretty, it may not always look conventional, but it’s the way we play this game.”