SAN DIEGO (AP) — The San Diego State Aztecs are finally playing up to expectations.
They’ve won five of six games after stumbling badly at the start of the Mountain West schedule. On Sunday, Malik Pope had 17 points and nine rebounds, and Matt Shrigley and Jeremy Hemsley scored 16 points apiece in a 77-64 victory against UNLV.
It was SDSU’s 10th straight victory against the Runnin’ Rebels.
The Aztecs seemed to come out with an attitude and raced to a 41-26 halftime lead.
As usual, it started on the defensive end.
“When it comes to defense, either you play defense or come out,” Hemsley said. “As far as intensity, it could just be someone on the other team saying something that can get you fired up and you want to set the tone. Defense is what this program is built on. The intensity isn’t always there, but when it is, it’s something cool to see.”
The three-time defending Mountain West Conference champion Aztecs (16-10, 8-6) are playing well after losing their first three league games and five of their first eight. They’ve moved up to fifth place with four games to go before the conference tournament.
UNLV (10-17, 3-11) lost its seventh straight game. Jovan Mooring led the Runnin’ Rebels with 26 and Uche Ofoegbu added 13.
The Aztecs took control in the first half. Pope dominated in the key while Shrigley made four 3-pointers in scoring all of his points in the first 20 minutes, including making four 3-pointers.
During one stretch, Pope made three of SDSU’s four baskets, on a jump hook, a jumper in the key and another jump hook. That gave SDSU a 23-18 lead with 7 ½ minutes left in the half. A block by Zylan Cheatham led to a layup by Trey Kell, and Shrigley hit a 3-pointer for a 10-point lead.
UNLV closed to 66-60 on a 3-pointer by Mooring with 4:45 left but made only two more baskets the rest of the way as the Aztecs extended the lead back to double digits. Kell hit a big turnaround jumper with 3:38 left and Hemsley scored five of the Aztecs’ final seven points.
“I thought our first half was really, really, really solid,” coach Steve Fisher said. “When you make shots, you look good and we were 16 for 28. We had quality shots. We got them out of the flow. It wasn’t one guy doing everything with the ball while four guys watched. So I liked the flow. And they struggled to make a shot.
“In the second half, we were like that golfer who was 9-under at the turn and all those putts roll out. We had a lot of really good looks that we didn’t make, and they made some hard shots. We put them in the position where we got them to the free throw line too soon, and they got encouraged and came back on us.”
The struggling Runnin’ Rebels are in their first season under coach Marvin Menzies, a former SDSU assistant.
“I told Marvin to stay with it and I know he will and they will,” Fisher said. “It’s never easy, whether you’re winning or not winning. He will continue to work hard to recruit to get the Rebels back to where they expect to be but for today it was a good win for the Aztecs.”
UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels dropped into a last-place tie with Air Force in the MWC with four games to play.
San Diego State: Kell, a junior guard, was honored before the game for becoming the 31st player in school history to score 1,000 career points. He reached the mark during a win at Nevada a week earlier.
UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels are at Air Force on Wednesday night.
San Diego State: The Aztecs host Fresno State on Wednesday night.