SAN DIEGO -- Welcome back to the Mountain West, San Diego State.
Wednesday night at Viejas Arena, the UNLV Rebels gave the once-outgoing Aztecs a reminder of what they would have been missing had they actually followed through with the football team’s exodus to the Big East and the rest of the school's sports going to the Big West. But earlier in the day it was announced that the Mountain West reinstated SDSU -- ensuring that fantastic rivalries such as SDSU and UNLV basketball would thrive in the future.
And Wednesday night’s showdown lived up to the recent history of up-tempo, aggressive and physical basketball between the two teams. Paced by a 20-point night from point guard Anthony Marshall, the Rebels snapped a four-game losing skid at Viejas Arena, topping the No. 15 Aztecs 82-75.
Seeing as the previous three meetings between the schools had been decided by two points, this one had to feel like a thrashing, right?
“Nah,” Marshall said with a smile. “It’s still too close for comfort, especially against that team. You never know what’s going to happen in a game like this.”
The teams traded the lead nine times before the Rebels were finally able to pull away in the closing minutes -- an ability that had eluded them previously. In the past few weeks they had dropped close games on the road to North Carolina (79-73) and New Mexico (65-60). So gutting out a victory as visitors against a ranked team was a step in the right direction for the Rebels (15-3, 2-1 MWC).
“It takes a tough team to beat a tough team,” Marshall said. “When we went up 10 [in the first half], we knew they were going to make a run. We just wanted to sustain. We got rebounds and made free throws.”
This season has been one of adjustment for Marshall, a senior. After making his living as a shooting guard, he moved over to the point and is still learning the ropes of running the team. In the previous game, an overtime win against Air Force, he took just one shot but had 12 assists. Wednesday night, he was 8-of-13 shooting from the field, he snagged eight rebounds and his dribble-drive off the high ball screen kept the Aztecs' defense off balance all night.
“I’m making strides and adjusting every game because not every game is going to be the same,” he said. “This time I was trying to be more aggressive. I have to get guys involved, run the offense. When we do that we I feel we’re competitive with anyone.”
Wins don’t come easy at Viejas, either. The loss snaps a 10-game home winning streak for the Aztecs (14-3, 2-1), who are 58-5 at home over their past 63.
“At the end of the day, it was about being tough enough to make plays,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “This was a great toughness win for us. I’m just so happy for our seniors because we don’t have a player on our roster that had ever won at Viejas Arena. After the game we dedicated it to our seniors, because certainly San Diego State has a couple of wins at Thomas & Mack.”
SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin turned in another solid performance, leading all players with 27 points on 9-of-21 shooting. He also had seven rebounds.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has helped build the Aztecs -- and really the conference -- into a major player on the national stage. The fact that they’ll be back next season -- more than likely going toe-to-toe with UNLV -- is reassuring.
“It’s nice to know for all of us that now it appears that we’ve got some stability of where we will be next year,” Fisher said. “I’m the only guy that’s been here since the beginning of the Mountain West. Coaches have come and gone. I’m the lone dog that has been here for 14 years as a coach. I value the quality of the league. It’s getting great recognition. Now we know this is where we’re going to be and we’ll make it work. This is a great league and we’re proud to be a part of it. We know we are going to continue to be part of it. This is a really good basketball league now. This league could go to any league in America and be competitive.”