Pressure eventually breaks UNLV against San Diego State

It’s NASCAR week locally, which means things will be running pretty fast come the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch are paid millions of dollars to push the limit.

Guys like Bryce Dejean-Jones and Deville Smith aren’t.

It’s OK to accelerate tempo in basketball when you’re the one creating pace. UNLV wasn’t Wednesday night.

For it, the Rebels eventually cracked under pressure.

San Diego State bothered UNLV as much mentally as anything in a 73-64 victory for the nation’s 10th-ranked team at the Thomas &Mack Center, forcing more turnovers in a half than the Rebels average for 40 minutes.

A season-best crowd of 16,030 was announced and treated to what was more an entertaining than clean game.

But that’s the net San Diego State can tease you into, speeding up both your play and decisions.

The Rebels fell for it, especially early.

Hook, line, miscue.

The Aztecs don’t even play fast. Not really. But their man-press can be confusing — will they attack, will they stunt and stay back, where is the trap coming from, is it coming at all? — and climbs into the heads of guards who often over-dribble trying to solve it.

Put it this way: UNLV dribbled way too much Wednesday.

“I thought our pace was better in the second half, but there is no doubt their pressure bothered us,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “They’re very, very good defensively. We gave them way too many points off turnovers.”

Said UNLV junior Khem Birch: “I had three turnovers the first two minutes of the game. That’s what they want to do. They want you to play scared.”

UNLV entered the night averaging 11.2 turnovers.

It had 12 at halftime and 16 for the game.

Roscoe Smith (concussion) missed the game for UNLV and you can certainly point to the fact San Diego State had 14 offensive rebounds and 34 points in the paint as how much the Rebels could have used the junior forward inside.

But there is no escaping this fact: In the battle of guards, this was a mismatch of ridiculous levels.

Dejean-Jones and Smith combined to shoot 1-for-12 and had 10 of the team’s 16 turnovers. Smith, who had played so well and under control of late, had seven. He never got in any sort of rhythm. Dejean-Jones appeared lost for his 21 minutes and reportedly left the arena minutes after his team left the court.

On the opposite side, Xavier Thames spent the final three or so minutes showing why he will battle New Mexico senior Cameron Bairstow for Mountain West Player of the Year when ballots are counted following Saturday’s regular-season showdown in San Diego for the league title.

Thames in 34 minutes Wednesday: a game-high 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and no turnovers.

As in zero.

“X is a winner,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “X is a fierce competitor. He’s got a choirboy 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.”

In the final 3:22, Thames scored six of his team’s final 12 points and assisted on the basket (a Winston Shepard 3-pointer) that ended any doubt about the outcome and sent UNLV fans scurrying for the exit.

“Thames is a great player, probably the best guard in our league,” Birch said. “He knows what to do down the stretch of games. He has been doing it all year.

“(San Diego State) knows how to finish games. They finished it when we (lost 63-52) down there earlier and they finished this game.”

And for it, UNLV suddenly doesn’t have a stranglehold on third place in the Mountain West.

The Rebels need to win at UNR on Saturday to clinch the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament.

Lose, and the Wolf Pack clinch third with a season-sweep of UNLV.

That would cause the Rebels to drop to fourth and likely mean an opening-round tournament game against Boise State.

“We always thought the game (at UNR) was going to be big,” Rice said. “We’re very, very disappointed to lose this one. We were at home, on Senior Night, playing a Top 10 program, and we had a great opportunity to win. But now we have to rally the troops and get them back quickly in a short time for a huge game Saturday.”

Things got fast Wednesday. UNLV’s guards didn’t react well at all and Birch, who was terrific most of the night, tired late and missed critical free-throws when the game was still there to be taken.

Opportunity lost, for sure.

It’s not the first time.

It’s why UNLV today is 40 minutes from fourth place.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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