Senior guard Xavier Thames has led the way all season long for No. 10 San Diego State, as he’s been the best scorer and playmaker for a team one win away from the outright Mountain West regular season title. That was once again the case Wednesday night in Las Vegas, but he had help down the stretch in the form of Winston Shepard III as the Aztecs beat UNLV 73-64.
Thames may have shot just 6-for-18 from the field for the game but he was far better in the second half, scoring 15 of his 19 points on 4-for-9 shooting to go along with five rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. Thames and Shepard combined to score San Diego State’s final 12 points, leading the Aztecs on a 14-5 run over the final 4:47 to move back into a tie for first place in the Mountain West with No. 21 New Mexico.
And the points scored by that tandem only tell part of the story. Simply put, Shepard and Thames are better decision-makers than any of UNLV’s primary ball-handlers, and that was evident down the stretch. Neither player committed a turnover on Wednesday night, with UNLV’s Deville Smith accounting for seven turnovers and Bryce Dejean-Jones adding three. Overall the Runnin’ Rebels turned the ball over 16 times, with San Diego State turning those opportunities into 19 points.
Thames and Shepard have been the leaders offensively this season and that’s going to be the case for the remainder of the season. But for San Diego State to make a serious run deep into March (and maybe even April) that tandem will need help, and against UNLV Dwayne Polee Jr. and Matt Shrigley provided it. Polee scored 13 points and Shrigley added 14, with all of his points coming in the second half. Shooting 33.7% from three on the season, Shrigley hit four of his five attempts from beyond the arc in the second half.
The contributions of Polee and Shrigley were needed against UNLV, with Josh Davis failing to score while battling foul trouble for much of the season, putting the Aztecs in position to win the game late. That’s when Thames and Shepard took over, guaranteeing that Saturday’s showdown with New Mexico will be a “winner take all” affair.