One of the Mountain West's preseason favorites suffered a crushing loss Wednesday night that all but knocked it out of contention in the league title chase.
The other narrowly avoided the same fate.
Only two hours after UNLV's loss to lowly Fresno State sent the Rebels tumbling to three games behind first-place New Mexico in the conference standings, San Diego State found itself down two at home to Boise State in the closing seconds.
Jamaal Franklin streaked up court but lost control of the ball as he dribbled into traffic in the paint. Somehow the ball popped out to a wide-open Chase Tapley spotted up in the left corner, enabling him to sink the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds to go to give San Diego State a badly needed 63-62 victory.
What made the shot all the more improbable was Tapley hadn’t made a 3-pointer since injuring his right wrist against New Mexico 11 days earlier. He missed all three he shot against the Lobos, the five he attempted in a loss at Air Force, and the first four he tried Wednesday at Viejas Arena.
Had Tapley missed his final Wednesday, the Aztecs would have fallen into a fourth-place tie with UNLV at 4-4 in the conference with road games left against first-place New Mexico, second-place Colorado State and the Rebels. Instead they improved to 5-3, maybe not where they would like to be yet still only two games out of first with half the Mountain West schedule yet to play.
It's a testament both to the quality of the Mountain West and to some unexpected issues facing UNLV and San Diego State that the Rebels are all but out of the league title hunt with a month to go and the Aztecs are teetering.
Underachieving UNLV trailed Fresno State by as many as 16 points midway through the second half on Wednesday night, ultimately falling to 1-4 on the road in the Mountain West this season and 3-11 in Dave Rice's tenure. The Rebels continue to suffer as a result of ill-advised shot selection, a lack of a true point guard and the futile quest to turn onetime star Mike Moser into a wing when he's clearly better-suited to play power forward.
San Diego State has struggled on the glass against bigger teams and at times been erratic offensively, a problem exacerbated by lingering back issues plaguing starting point guard Xavier Thames. The senior missed his fourth league contest on Wednesday night and has not practiced consistently for a month.
And yet the Aztecs have relied on their defense and scoring from Franklin and Tapley to survive, still in striking distance of New Mexico and Colorado State with home wins over both of them already in hand. They don't have much margin for error left and the second-half schedule isn't favorable, but a glimmer of hope is better than virtually no shot at a league title at all.
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