SAN DIEGO — When shots are dropping, the game looks easy. The opposite also is true, as junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones and UNLV found out the hard way.
Dejean-Jones missed his first eight shots Saturday, and the Rebels’ ragged offensive display led them to a dead end on the road.
“The shots just weren’t falling,” Dejean-Jones said. “We got a lot of layups that were going in and coming right back out. We couldn’t even believe it.”
Xavier Thames scored 18 points as No. 10 San Diego State used its defense to shut down UNLV in a brutally ugly 63-52 win at Viejas Arena.
Thames, a senior point guard, was the high scorer, but not exactly a hot shooter. He went 3-for-14 from the field yet did connect on 11 of 12 free throws, and the Aztecs (16-1, 5-0 Mountain West) remained the lone unbeaten team in league play largely because they cashed in at the foul line by hitting 21 of 27.
“We did a good job of holding Thames down, but unfortunately he got 12 free throws,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said. “The free-throw disparity was a big difference in the game.”
UNLV, which made 8 of 11 free throws, was held to season lows in points, shooting percentage (30.0) and assists (five) while hitting 2 of 18 3-pointers.
Dejean-Jones shot 7-for-25 and had 15 points for the Rebels (11-7, 2-3). Point guard Deville Smith shot 5-for-19 and scored 13 points. Dejean-Jones and Smith were a combined 0-for-13 on 3s.
“We competed and we fought,” said Roscoe Smith, who totaled 12 points and 10 rebounds. “Some of the shots we normally make just weren’t dropping for us. The rim just wasn’t kind to us.”
San Diego State, which shot only 34 percent, showed why it has the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense. When UNLV was not misfiring on contested jumpers, it was missing contested layups.
“We’re a good defensive team, and when you make it hard for them to get easy shots, you’re going to have a chance,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “We did a good job of contesting 3-point shots with our length.
“They beat us three in a row coming into this game, so we were determined to protect our home turf. It was hard fought with a lot of tough defense.”
Deville Smith spun into the lane for a layup to pull the Rebels within 50-45 with 5:45 remaining, but UNLV came up empty on its next two possessions and the Aztecs answered the run.
Josh Davis finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds for San Diego State, which used 18 offensive rebounds to gain a 19-7 advantage in second-chance points.
“He’s the man. He did his thing,” the Aztecs’ JJ O’Brien said of Davis. “He was all over the place. He did a great job defending and was a monster on the glass, as usual.”
The Rebels trailed by as many as 17 points and shot 8-for-33 from the field en route to falling behind 34-20 at halftime.
The teams shot a combined 3-for-27 to open the game. UNLV went 1-for-13 before Roscoe Smith’s three-point play at the 12:23 mark. Smith scored nine of the Rebels’ first 11 points.
“We just dug ourselves too deep a hole in the first half,” Rice said. “That’s two pretty good defensive teams battling. We both missed a ton of shots.”
Dejean-Jones scored five points during UNLV’s 10-2 spurt to open the second half. But he had to work hard for every shot while defended by the long arms of the 6-foot-7-inch O’Brien and 6-8 Winston Shepard, among others.
“We had Bryce attacking the basket to start the game,” Rice said. “It’s unfortunate because he’s been playing at such a high level.”
Khem Birch had five blocks to help UNLV on one end of the floor, but he was neutralized by a double-teaming defensive scheme and was limited to four points on four shots.
Dejean-Jones, Birch and Deville Smith were most instrumental in the Rebels’ upset victory at New Mexico on Wednesday, but all three were quieted amid the roar of 12,414 fans and one of the nation’s top defensive teams.
“We came in with a confident mindset,” Rice said. “We’re bitterly disappointed, but it was a positive week for us.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.