LAS VEGAS (AP) — While remaining the country’s only unbeaten team was important to the San Diego State Aztecs, they had another milestone on their minds Sunday.
“It was important because we wanted to hit 21-0 and make (school) history,” junior Trey Pulliam said.
Malachi Flynn scored 21 points, Pulliam added a career-high 18 points and the fourth-ranked Aztecs (21-0, 10-0 Mountain West) staved off UNLV’s second-half rally to win 71-67 and break the school records for best start and longest winning streak in the program’s 99 seasons.
Jordan Schakel contributed 11 points for the Aztecs. San Diego State had won 20 straight games twice before — during the 2010-11 and 2013-14 seasons. The latter team made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and finished 31-5.
Bryce Hamilton scored 29 points to lead UNLV (11-11, 6-3). Reigning Mountain West Player of the Week Marvin Coleman chipped in with 11 points.
“We knew they played hard, they been playing great to start conference play,” Flynn said of the Runnin’ Rebels. “We knew it was gonna be a good test. They fought hard for sure. We know when we come out everybody is going to give us their best shot. It’s gonna help us in the long run. We know they’re gonna come in and try to beat a top-four team.”
Which UNLV certainly did, using a 12-4 run to open the second half. The Runnin’ Rebels took the lead — their first since the game’s first basket — with 13:28 left when Cheikh Mbacke Diong’s bucket made it 40-38. That seemed to awaken the Aztecs, who went on a 15-7 run to lead 55-47 with 4:54 left.
“It’s college basketball, everyone has a run in them and (UNLV coach) TJ (Otzelberger) has done a great job with his team,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “We knew they were ready for this moment, cause we’d seen it many times with TJ’s club, they get better and better. They played the right way, they were rewarded for it, but at the end of the day we made enough timely plays and important plays to get out of here with the win.”
Particularly on defense, as the Aztecs did a good job at locking in defensively late and holding the Rebels scoreless for more than five minutes, despite the Rebels shooting 46.4% from the floor in the second half.
“We knew we were gonna have to play our absolute best to win today,” Otzelberger said. “I thought our fight was there. I thought our competitive spirit was there. There was a few key plays, certain moments we didn’t finish plays on the glass or get the stop that we needed. Had we done that, probably would have been a different story there at the end of the game.”
UNLV’s competitive spirit was apparent from the opening tip, as it opened the game by taking a page out San Diego State’s defensive playbook, limiting space for the Aztecs to operate and keeping the game close. But it didn’t take long for the nation’s fourth-best scoring defense to respond by stifling the Runnin’ Rebels and using a quick 6-0 run to open an 18-9 lead.
The Aztecs, who rank fifth in the nation in limiting opposing teams to just 36.7% shooting from the floor, held UNLV to 11 of 27 shooting, including 2 for 12 (16.7%) from 3-point range.
Pulliam hit his career mark with 10 first-half points, culminating with a buzzer-beating jumper that gave the Aztecs a 34-28 lead at halftime.
It was San Diego State’s fifth straight win over UNLV and eighth consecutive road victory. San Diego State’s 25 victories over UNLV since the start of the 2008-09 campaign are tied for the most wins by any Division I school against another team.
The Aztecs are 10-1 against UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center, while the rest of the country is 30-65.
It took 24 seconds from the moment longtime UNLV public address announcer Dick Calvert requested a moment of silence for Kobe Bryant, to the ensuing “Kobe!” chant from the announced crowd of 12,287 to finish. Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Bryant wore No. 24 for the Los Angeles Lakers, who frequented the Thomas & Mack Center for preseason games during Bryant’s career.
San Diego State: Flynn continued to be a menace in the house of others. The All-American and National Player of the Year candidate is averaging just 13.9 points in 11 home games, but is now averaging 19.9 in road and neutral-site games.
“I think the road is more fun to be honest, just playing in somebody else’s crowd. Getting a win on somebody else’s floor, it feels a lot better,” Flynn said.
UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels long-range game continued to struggle. Ranked 276th going into the game with a 3-point percentage of 31.5, UNLV hit 30.8% (8 of 26) from beyond the arc.
San Diego State should be safe at No. 4 in the AP Top 25 after going 2-0 this week.
San Diego State will retire NBA champion and former Aztec Kawhi Leonard’s jersey at halftime of its next home game, on Feb. 1 against Utah State. Leonard was part of the 2010-11 team that went 34-3 and and the first in program history to reach the Sweet 16.
MORE 3S, PLEASE
UNLV extended its NCAA record of making at least one 3-pointer in a game to 1,092 straight games. The Runnin’ Rebels have made at least one 3-pointer in every game since the NCAA adopted the shot for the 1986-87 season.
San Diego State travels to New Mexico on Wednesday.
UNLV travels to Colorado State on Saturday.
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