SAN DIEGO -- Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas provided the inside strength San Diego State needed to overpower UNLV.
The Rebels took care of the rest, sealing their own fate with weak outside shooting.
Leonard had 15 points and 17 rebounds and Thomas added 14 points and 16 rebounds as sixth-ranked San Diego State stayed unbeaten by defeating UNLV 55-49 in a defensive struggle that went to the team with more muscle Wednesday night.
"Of course we feel we're a top-five team. We feel we can play with anybody in the nation," Leonard said. "We're 18-0 and teams know that, so they want to beat us probably more than we want to win. But that makes us play harder."
With most of the 12,414 fans in Viejas Arena roaring and waving white towels, Leonard said he sensed the Mountain West Conference rivals were playing in a "championship-like atmosphere."
It's looking more like the reeling Rebels (13-4, 1-2) don't possess the offensive firepower to win the league title.
"It was a great environment to play in, and these are the types of games you live for when you go on the road," said sophomore guard Anthony Marshall, who led UNLV with 11 points.
"We felt we competed with them. We didn't back down. But we missed a lot of open shots."
The Rebels shot 1-for-18 from 3-point range, a feeble performance that was a combination of San Diego State (18-0, 3-0) defending with intensity and UNLV's simple inability to hit jumpers.
"I thought our guys really, really fought defensively," Rebels coach Lon Kruger said. "We had a lot of missed shots. Making shots changes the complexion of everything."
UNLV trailed 52-47 with two minutes remaining when Tre'Von Willis missed an open 3 from the top.
The Rebels had another shot to narrow the deficit, but Oscar Bellfield missed a 12-foot bank shot, and Bellfield fouled Thomas on the rebound. Thomas made one free throw with 1:16 left.
Brice Massamba's layup pulled the Rebels within 53-49 at the 1:05 mark. Leonard drove the baseline, was fouled by Massamba and hit two free throws with 34 seconds to go.
Chace Stanback, Willis and Marshall each missed a 3-point attempt in the final 20 seconds.
"It's frustrating. Unfortunately, the ball didn't fall for us at the end when we needed it," said Stanback, who shot 4-for-17 and finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
Leonard's eight points and nine rebounds helped carry the Aztecs to a 28-26 halftime lead.
Billy White, a senior from Green Valley High School, hit two 3-pointers as San Diego State opened the second half with a 12-4 run to take a 40-30 lead. UNLV, which shot 2-for-10 during that stretch, was on the verge of being blown out in falling behind 44-32.
But Willis made the Rebels' only 3 with 9:32 remaining, and Bellfield's running jumper in the lane closed the gap to 46-41.
"We made that big run in the second half, and we felt like we had to go take it from them," said Willis, who had nine points on 4-for-11 shooting, 1-for-7 on 3s. "We felt we did what we wanted to do on the defensive end, but that's not enough points to win the ballgame."
Aztecs coach Steve Fisher compared the game to an "arm-wrestling match," but it was more physical than that as each team had three players hit with technical fouls.
Late in the first half, Leonard was knocked to the floor on a foul under the basket by Stanback. Players started shoving and trading words before officials and coaches stepped in to calm the situation.
"It was just the heat of battle. There's going to be a little talk here and there," Leonard said. "No harm to anybody."
White said those who doubt San Diego State's high ranking need a reality check.
"Some people think we are still a joke, but that's just going to motivate us more," White said. "We know we belong. We're going to be here all year, and we're going to keep moving up."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.