SALT LAKE CITY — San Diego State's Aztecs had Nevada Las Vegas right where they wanted it, meaning they had Richie Adams right where they wanted him--on the bench.
The Rebels' center was burdened with three fouls early in the first half and four early in the second half.
"We wanted to take the ball to him and get him out," Aztec Coach Smokey Gaines said.
However, Adams got plenty of help from his teammates and the Rebels survived a second-half San Diego State rally to win, 85-80, in the first round of the NCAA West Regionals at the University of Utah.
Thus, San Diego State ended its best Division 1 season with a 23-8 record. Once again, in its third NCAA appearance, it was knocked out in the first round.
"We showed we could play with them," guard Anthony Watson said. "But I wanted to show we could beat them."
In truth, the Aztecs did throw a scare into the ninth-ranked Rebels, who entered the game with a 27-3 record and a nine-game winning streak.
UNLV built a 13-point lead in the first half in spite of Adams' absence for the last 14:09 with three fouls. But the Aztecs trimmed that lead with an excruciatingly slow comeback and finally tied the game, 56-56, on a dunk by Leonard Allen off a pass from Watson with 9:49 to play.
It was starting to look like a replay of last week's win over Texas El Paso for the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship. The Aztecs were down by 10 in that game, but rallied to win, 87-81.
But UNLV would not fold. Adams, the Rebels leading scorer, did not score until 12:03 remained in the game, but he hit two free throws to break the 56-56 tie and scored a total of 10 points going down the stretch. He never did pick up his fifth foul.
"I just didn't want to put him back in and have him let everybody score," UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "I told him I'd rather he foul out than let people go."
And Tarkanian was understandably concerned about the Aztecs' scoring inside. Most of the San Diego State points came when the guards--Watson, Creon Dorsey or Jeff Konek--penetrated and either scored or passed to the big men.
The 6-foot 10-inch Allen was the top scorer with 23 points and Watson scored 19, most on drives or jumpers from next to the key. Forwards Michael Kennedy and John Martens had 11 apiece.
"They were beating us on the dribble with one-on-one penetration," Tarkanian said. "Their first four baskets came when the guards penetrated and then dished off. We stopped that for the rest of the first half."
The Aztecs led 10-6 with five baskets from the inside, three by Watson on drives into the key.
And the Aztecs were silenced at about that point. UNLV scored 13 of the next 14 points. With Adams benched in foul trouble, forward Armon Gilliam--the Rebels' top scorer with 21 points--made 7 of those 13 points.
"UNLV has excellent depth," Allen said. "When we got Richie out, No. 00--I don't know his name--came off the bench and did an excellent job."
That would have been freshman center Richard Robinson. His turnaround jumper capped UNLV's comeback from a 10-6 deficit and gave it a 19-11 lead.
The Rebels would build that first-half advantage to 33-20 and 35-22 when Robinson, Jones, Frank James, James again and Robinson hit five straight field goal attempts.
In fact, it took one of those prayer shots, an awkward 25-foot jumper by Konek, to pull the Aztecs to within 43-33 at halftime.
However, UNLV came out cold in the second half. It missed its first 10 shots and the Aztecs launched a rally--a rally built of frustration.
This was no swift surge from behind. The Aztecs got to within one and fell back and got to within two and fell back and got to within two again.
With the score 56-54, Gaines called a timeout with 9:59 to play.
"I wanted to get the ball inside to Leonard," he said. "Richie was in the game with four fouls and they had another guy with four fouls."
Truthfully, the Aztecs were trying to get the ball inside. However, forced passes were leading to turnovers.
"Unfortunately," Gaines said, "we threw it away three or four times."
The Aztecs seemed obsessed at times with trying to draw Adams' fifth foul. Martens, on one occasion, missed a rather desperate reverse layup which could only have been a ploy to get a foul called under the basket.
After that timeout, Watson did get the ball into Allen and his dunk created the only tie of the second half.
From then, it was a frustrating chase. Get close and fall back. Again and again.
With 1:02 to play, a jumper by Watson trimmed UNLV's margin to 79-76--and that was it for both Watson and the Aztecs. He was assessed two fouls in three seconds, and was out of the game.
Four free throws by Freddie Banks in the last 27 seconds kept the Aztecs at bay.
"We didn't play our best game, but we didn't give up," Gaines said. "I thought we could have won the ballgame if we'd made free throws and cut down our turnovers."
Many of those turnovers--18 to 13 for UNLV--were caused by the Rebels' quickness.
"UNLV did a great job on defense," Watson said. "They switched and overplayed and hounded the ball. That's defense. It was hard to get our offense set."
No one has yet contrived a defense for free throws, but the Aztecs could not make them. They did not shoot free throws much better than they shot field goals--55.4% from the field and 60% from the line.
This was an evening when free throws--and fouls--were of paramount significance. And the most important foul was Adams' fifth, which never happened.
"We just couldn't get him out, and he came back and hurt us," Gaines said.
Adams came back and made sure San Diego State's season ended. Not his.