While the Aztecs have controlled this series of late, they know they’ll get all they can handle from a Runnin’ Rebels team eagerly awaiting their arrival.
Seeking a fourth straight win at the Thomas & Mack Center, No. 13 San Diego State looks to hand 14th-ranked UNLV its first home loss when the teams meet Saturday with first place in the Mountain West Conference on the line.
The Aztecs (20-3, 6-1) continued their recent domination of the Runnin’ Rebels (21-4, 5-2) with a conference-opening 69-67 win Jan. 14. Leading scorer Jamaal Franklin played the role of hero, making the game-winning layup with three-tenths of a second remaining.
Tightly-contested games between these teams are nothing new, with the last four matchups decided by a combined 16 points.
“We’ve played Vegas close game after close game after close game,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “Every game, home or away, has been very aggressive by both teams … Obviously, the magnitude of this game right now for both teams is big. It’s high level.”
San Diego State is first in the conference, one game ahead of both UNLV and New Mexico. While the Aztecs currently control their own destiny, they know facing both to kick off the second half of league play could quickly change things. San Diego State hosts the Lobos on Wednesday.
“Second half begins (Saturday) and we know the challenges that we face. Everybody asked before we started, `What’s it going to be like playing Vegas and New Mexico right out of the gate?’ And that’s what we have this time,” Fisher said.
“It’s a big game, a big game for both teams. I know we’ll be ready and I’m sure that they’ll be ready also … This is what everybody wants to play in though, these kinds of games and this kind of environment. This is what we’re going to have on Saturday. We look forward to it and we are ready to go.”
While the Thomas & Mack Center hasn’t generally proven kind to visiting teams, the Aztecs have surprisingly thrived there - going 5-1 over their last six visits. Another victory, however, could be hard to come by given the Runnin’ Rebels’ recent efforts at home.
UNLV has gone 13-0 on its own court while outscoring opponents by an average of 23.4 points. The Runnin’ Rebels, who rank ninth in the country with 80.0 points per game, are averaging an even more impressive 86.8 on 51.6 percent shooting at home.
UNLV doesn’t carry much momentum into this weekend’s showdown after its five-game winning streak came to an end with last Saturday’s 68-66 loss at Wyoming. The Runnin’ Rebels had a couple of chances to tie the game in the waning seconds but couldn’t come though.
“We’re right in the middle of a conference race. We let one get away (last Saturday), but again, we’re still one game out of first place,” coach Dave Rice told the team’s official site. “We’ve got the first place team coming to the Thomas & Mack Center on (Saturday), so great opportunity for us ahead.”
The Aztecs are coming off an 83-73 win over TCU last Saturday and, like UNLV, figure to be well rested.
“I think it’s good for us,” Fisher said of having the week off. “I think we need to take a deep breath … With the stretch we had, and what we’ve been doing, the travel and everything, it affected us physically a little bit. … It’s nice to have a slight lead going into the second lap. We know it will be hard.”
Franklin, averaging 16.0 points, scored 24 to go along with a career best-tying 11 rebounds versus the Horned Frogs.