With the game hanging in the balance, Xavier Thames was up to the task. Driving to the rim and twisting in the air, Thames made an acrobatic play that put San Diego State over the top.
Down the stretch, the senior point guard was the X-factor for the Aztecs as they clinched at least a share of the Mountain West regular-season title Wednesday night.
Thames scored 19 points to lift 10th-ranked San Diego State to a 73-64 victory over UNLV before a season-high crowd of 16,030 at the Thomas &Mack Center.
“We just wanted to keep attacking the basket and get to the rim, and I think that’s what we did,” said Thames, who set the perfect example.
Thames drove into Rebels forward Chris Wood, drew a foul and finished a three-point play to put the Aztecs ahead 64-62 with 3:04 to play.
UNLV’s Khem Birch missed two free throws, and Winston Shepard hit a 3-pointer from the left wing as San Diego State took a 67-62 lead at the 2:30 mark.
“I’m confident. I consider myself a crunch-time player,” said Shepard, who was 5-for-28 from 3-point range on the season before sticking the dagger into the Rebels. “I told myself if X passed it to me, I’m going to put it down.”
Shepard and Thames each added two free throws to stretch it to 71-62 with 1:14 remaining.
“These games are always, always hard-fought,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “You have to keep your belief that you’re going to be successful, then you have to keep your fight and your spirit and just compete. You have to compete hard.
“You just have to play and compete hard. We’ve done that with some consistency. I think that’s why we have 26 wins.”
Reserve guard Matt Shrigley made four 3-pointers on the way to 14 points for the Aztecs (26-3, 15-2). Shepard and Dwayne Polee II scored 13 apiece.
Birch’s 16 points and 10 rebounds led UNLV (19-11, 10-7). Kevin Olekaibe finished with 11 points on his Senior Night, and junior guard Jelan Kendrick added 10.
The Rebels play at UNR on Saturday in a game that will determine the No. 3 seed in next week’s conference tournament. The Wolf Pack pulled off a double-overtime upset at Boise State on Wednesday.
“There’s still a ton to play for,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We certainly had our opportunities. I thought we gave a great effort.”
Point guard play was a major difference in the outcome. Thames had a subpar shooting night by going 6-for-18, but he had six rebounds, six assists and no turnovers in addition to making the biggest play of the game.
“Thames is a great player. He’s probably the best guard in the league,” Birch said. “He knows what to do down the stretch.”
The Rebels’ junior guards, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith, combined to shoot 1-for-12 from the field with 10 turnovers. Smith missed all five of his shots and turned it over seven times.
“You know the high level Deville has been playing at, so that was uncharacteristic of him,” Rice said.
Rattled by the Aztecs’ defensive pressure and trapping, the Rebels committed eight turnovers in the first eight minutes. But they put together a 10-0 run, and Olekaibe’s 3-pointer from the corner cut San Diego State’s lead to 33-32 with 1:24 left.
Olekaibe made two free throws with less than a second remaining in the half to lift UNLV to a 34-33 lead.
The Rebels shot 52 percent (13 of 25) from the field to help compensate for 12 first-half turnovers, but they shot 7-for-27 after halftime and made only two field goals in the final 11½ minutes.
It was a back-and-forth battle with 10 ties and 14 lead changes.
Wood dunked off a lob from Kendrick, and Kendrick knocked down his second 3-pointer of the game to put UNLV up 50-45 with 11:40 remaining.
San Diego State rallied behind Shrigley, who peeled off a screen and hit a 3 from the top to tie the score at 50 with 10:45 left. Thirty seconds later, Shrigley sank another 3 to send the Aztecs in front 53-52.
“Shrigley got going in the second half and made some tough shots,” Rice said.
Thames’ two free throws tied the score at 57 with 6:03 to go, and a dunk by Polee gave the Aztecs the lead.
“X is a winner. X is a fierce competitor,” Fisher said of Thames. “He’s got a choir boy look, but he can compete. He wants to win desperately. He can play and he can make plays both for himself and others and he did that again tonight.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.