JJ O’Brien got anything he wanted Wednesday night, and eventually, so did his teammates.
The senior from San Diego State shot 8-for-11 in the first half with all buckets coming around the rim. He finished with a game-high 22 points and UNLV lost 60-58 to the Aztecs.
San Diego State doesn’t win its games by scoring a lot of points, but by its size and players moving without the ball. O’Brien took advantage of the Rebels’ gaps defensively in the first half, despite UNLV jumping out to a 31-28 halftime lead.
“[O’Brien]’s stats don’t tell the story for what he brings to a team,” said coach Dave Rice. “He just makes winning plays.”
The Rebels did a much better job taking O’Brien out of the game in the second half, but UNLV didn’t account for other San Diego State players. After going 0-for-8 in the first half from 3-point range, the Aztecs went 5-of-6 in the final 20 minutes.
Much of that was due to focusing solely on O’Brien’s ability to attack the basket. UNLV’s lapses defensively led to the Aztecs getting open looks from the perimeter, which the Rebels would usually live with.
Three of San Diego State’s five 3-pointers in the second half were wide-open looks from the right corner.
One factor that turned the tide against UNLV was freshman Dwayne Morgan picking up his fourth foul with 9:32 remaining. Morgan played his best overall game of the year, scoring 13 points and going blow-for-blow with O’Brien in the first half.
“Dwayne Morgan was fantastic tonight,” Rice said. “We need to keep him out of foul trouble.”
UNLV’s defense also took a major blow midway through the second half when freshman guard Patrick McCaw took an inadvertent headbutt from Chris Wood with 14:20 to go. McCaw struggled offensively (shooting 2-of-8) but he had two steals and played solid defense on Aztecs guard Aqeel Quinn.
Rice said that McCaw suffered concussion-like symptoms and if he can’t go Saturday against San Jose State, Morgan would start at small forward—a position he hasn’t practiced all season.
“Any time you lose someone when you have seven scholarship guys going…I think we just ran out of gas,” point guard Cody Doolin said. “Pat is arguably our second-best player.”
There was a silver lining for UNLV defensively, that being Goodluck Okonoboh. The freshman had four blocks and held San Diego State star Winston Shepard to 3-of-13.
UNLV held the Aztecs to 42 percent shooting on Wednesday night, and Rice said it was some of the best collective defense he’s seen from his team all year. Once again, it wasn’t enough for a team headed for a play-in game when the Mountain West Tournament starts next week.
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