By Kweku Turkson
Las Vegas -- Powered by a furious second half comeback, the San Diego State Aztecs were able to defeat the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, 62–52, on Wednesday night at the Thomas and Mack Center in a first round Mountain West Conference Tournament matchup.
The Runnin' Rebels, basement dwellers for much of the regular season under first year head coach Marvin Menzies, looked to have finally found their groove in jumping out to a sizable first half lead, only to then completely collapse in the game’s second half. The game truly exemplified the clichéd tale of two halves, as there was a complete role reversal from the first frame to the second.
UNLV, playing a de facto home game, came out like gangbusters behind the inspired first half play of guard Jovan Mooring and versatile big man Christian Jones. Mooring, a junior from Chicago, was able to get a good early rhythm, as he paced the Rebels with 15 points. As a result, the Rebels held an 18-point lead after the game’s first 20 minutes at 32-14.
In the second half, Mooring's hot shooting continued, as he drained a trifecta from long distance, pushing the Rebel’s lead to 21. However, in a mere moment's time, that lead was down to just 12 points, as Jeremy Hemsley made a steal of an ill-advised Jones' pass and converted the layup. Hemsley would later follow that up with a three-pointer, reducing the Rebels’ once sizable lead to just seven points with less than seven minutes gone in the second half.
UNLV sophomore combo guard Jalen Poyser would push the Rebels' lead back to 10 after making a contested layup and then sinking the free throw for a three-point play. Both teams would exchange baskets over the next few minutes, with the Aztecs getting the better of things, including a thunderous alley-oop dunk from D’Erryl Williams to Valentine Izundu. The Aztecs would culminate their run with an impressive contested corner three by Matt Shrigley, a notable play not only in that it gave the Aztecs their first lead at 41-40, but also because it was his first basket of the game.
UNLV senior forward Christian Jones looked to bring the Rebels back, making a free throw, and then a tough baseline jumper, but the Aztecs came right back and responded. UNLV would turn the ball over on the next possession, and then Williams would capitalize on the miscue, converting a three-point play to give the Aztecs a one-point lead at 47-46.
With under two minutes to play in regulation, and the score sitting at 50-48, UNLV’s Christian Jones knocked down one of two attempts from the free throw stripe, bringing UNLV to within one at 50-49.
After forcing the Aztecs into a shot clock violation with some stifling defense, guard Jalen Poyser had his shot in the lane rejected. San Diego State subsequently looked to run some clock before finding a good look at the basket, but yet again, couldn’t get a shot off before the shot clock expired.
Trailing 50-49, Menzies elected to use his team’s final timeout with 25.8 seconds remaining. Coming out of the timeout, the Rebels ran a play through Jones who was fouled going to the hoop and sent to the line with 10.1 on the clock. After missing the first free throw, Jones calmly swished the second, deadlocking the game at 50 and sending it into overtime.
San Diego State opened the scoring in the five-minute overtime period with Malik Pope converting a nice turnaround jump hook from the baseline. Dakarai Allen followed that shot up with a runner in the lane to give the Aztecs a four-point lead at 54-50.
UNLV's Uche Ofoegbu then made an ill-advised attempt to corral a loose ball, resulting in his fifth foul and leaving Poyser as Menzies only viable option at point guard for the duration of the game.
San Diego State's Trey Kell would once again come up big, draining a contested three-pointer as the shot clock expired to give the Aztecs an insurmountable nine-point lead with 1:04 to go in OT.
Kell tied for his team’s scoring lead on the night, tallying 13 points for the game.