San Diego State had to deal with some difficult atmospheric conditions at the start of a challenging stretch. In their next game, the Aztecs might have to contend with a motivated opponent.
In its return home, No. 6 San Diego State will try to stay unbeaten Wednesday night against UNLV, which is attempting to reclaim its spot in the Top 25.
While playing the second of back-to-back road games to open Mountain West play, the Aztecs (17-0, 2-0) struggled with the thin air during a 71-62 win over Utah on Saturday. Leading scorer Kawhi Leonard overcame a bout with shortness of breath to finish with a team-best 20 points and nine rebounds.
Malcolm Thomas had 17 points and 14 boards, and D.J. Gay added 18 points and hit a couple of 3-pointers during a key 10-0 run in the second half.
“Whatever we need at the time, D.J. comes in and steps up,” Leonard said. “If we need a steal, D.J.’s going to get the steal. If we need a score, he’s going to score.”
Gay, though, would like his team to not have to rely on what’s become its patented second-half surges.
“We know it’s going to happen; we never know when it’s going to happen,” Gay said of a run. “That’s a good thing and a bad thing because it can come back and bite us. We can’t be on a roller coaster. We have to play at a high level for 40 minutes.”
The Aztecs could use Gay’s help with trips to New Mexico, winner of 34 of 35 at home, and No. 11 BYU coming up later this month. First, San Diego State will face the Rebels (13-3, 1-1), who dropped out of the rankings this week after falling 89-77 at home to the Cougars last Wednesday.
Then-No. 25 UNLV responded with a 83-49 win over visiting TCU on Saturday night.
Tre’Von Willis had a season-high 22 points, and leading scorer Chace Stanback scored 15 after averaging 6.8 in his previous four games.
“For 40 minutes, it was probably the highest percentage of really good possessions both defensively and offensively that we’ve had all season,” coach Lon Kruger said. “It was good to see that bounce-back effort.”
Games against San Diego State haven’t proved as easy for Kruger’s program in recent years. The Aztecs have won five of six overall meetings and four of five at Viejas Arena, where another sellout crowd is expected.
They’ve won 12 straight and 35 of 37 on their home court, and their 17 consecutive overall victories give them the nation’s second-longest win streak behind top-ranked Duke’s 25-game run.
San Diego State fell 77-66 in Las Vegas last season as Willis scored 23 points, but the Aztecs earned a 68-58 home win over the then-No. 23 Rebels on Feb. 13 and a 55-45 victory in the Mountain West tournament title game.
Leonard recorded double-doubles in all three games and grabbed a career-high 21 rebounds while earning tournament MVP honors in Las Vegas.
Willis averaged a team-best 17.0 points last season against the Aztecs despite shooting 35.7 percent.
“This is a veteran team with a lot of players, that’s deep and well coached,” said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, who will attempt to earn his 400th career win. “We’ll get their best shot and hopefully we will give them ours.”
UNLV leads the series 32-17.