LAS VEGAS -- San Diego State coach Steve Fisher described senior Xavier Thames as one of his toughest players.
"X is a winner; X is a fierce competitor," Fisher said. "He can play, and he can make plays for others and he did that again tonight. He wants to win desperately."
San Diego State (26-3, 15-2 Mountain West) closed the game on a 13-2 run over the final 3:04 to seal its 26th victory of the season, matching the second-highest single-season total in school history. The Aztecs also won a school-record 15th conference game of the season, breaking the previous mark of 14, set in 2010-11.
San Diego State, which has now won eight of its last 11 against the Rebels, finished 27-for-63 from the field, including 6 of 14 from 3-point range. After falling behind 62-61 with 3:23 left in the game, Thames completed a three-point play to ignite the Aztecs' final scoring spree.
"We needed to buckle down and get stops," Thames said. "Our offense was pretty good all game, minus the turnovers, so we just needed to get stops."
After Jelan Kendrick's 3-pointer gave the Rebels a 50-45 lead with 11:38 left in the game, the Aztecs' full-court press stymied UNLV the rest of the way, as it managed just two more field goals.
The Aztecs, who are 12-2 away from home, are now 11-4 inside the Thomas and Mack Center since the 2010 Mountain West Tournament. This year's tournament begins March 12 at the T&M.
Thames was one of four Aztecs scoring in double figures, as Matt Shrigley added 14 and Winston Shepard and Dwayne Polee II each had 13.
Khem Birch had 16 points and 10 rebounds to lead UNLV (19-11, 10-7). Kevin Olekaibe added 10 for the Runnin' Rebels.
"I knew they would play hard, I knew they would compete," Fisher said. "They made it hard on us, they made four out of six 3-pointers in the first half, and Birch did what he did in our place. He wouldn't let us come to the rim without him rejecting a shot."
"This was from wire to wire a really tough game by two good teams. We got our little spurt at the end of the game. This was a one-possession game, and we made some free throws, they missed some shots."
Fisher has been the head coach for 19 of San Diego State's 23 all-time victories against UNLV. The Aztecs were 4-17 against UNLV before Fisher taking over as coach of the Aztecs.
San Diego State took a 12-5 lead in the game, but UNLV used a 10-0 run over a four-minute span midway through the first half to take a 15-12 lead. The Rebels extended their lead to six, 20-14, with 8:41 left, but the Aztecs battled back with a 15-5 run to take a 29-25 lead with 4:39 left until halftime. From there UNLV closed out the half on a 9-4 run to take a 34-33 lead into the locker room.
But after shooting 13 of 25 from the field in the first half, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, the Rebels shot a bleak 7 of 27 from the floor, and were an abysmal 2-for-12 from beyond the arc in the second half.
"We went in with a lot of confidence we could win and just didn't quite make enough plays down the stretch," UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
The game saw the Mountain West-rivals tie the score 10 times, and exchange leads on 14 occasions. And while UNLV outscored the Aztecs 17-6 with second-chance opportunities, San Diego State-outrebounded the Rebels, 40-34.
UNLV, which came into the game ranked ninth in the nation in rebounding with 40.3 rpg. clearly missed the services of Roscoe Smith down the stretch. The junior forward suffered a concussion in the Rebels' previous game, at Air Force, and was ruled out for the Rebels' final two games of the season.
"I missed [Roscoe Smith] a lot," Birch said. "Chris is a great player, don't get me wrong, but the experience of Roscoe -- averaging 11 rebounds and 11 points -- we really missed him tonight, we could have used him.
"I had to do a lot more than I'm used to without Roscoe on the floor."