Anthony Marshall scored a season-high 20 points, and Justin Hawkins and Khem Birch scored off rebounds on consecutive possessions over the final 1:18 to help UNLV beat the Aztecs 82-75 on Wednesday night.
"We showed a little more toughness than we had in New Mexico," Birch said. "This win gives us confidence."
Said Marshall: "We knew it would come down to the last couple of possessions, so it was nice to get a win."
Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 14 points and Birch had 12 for the Runnin' Rebels (15-3, 2-1 Mountain West Conference), who fell out of the AP Top 25 on Monday after losing at New Mexico and going to overtime against Air Force before winning.
The taller Runnin' Rebels were in better position all night and outrebounded the Aztecs 43-31.
The Aztecs' loss left No. 19 New Mexico as the only team with a perfect league record at 3-0. The Lobos beat Boise State 79-74 in overtime.
Jamaal Franklin had a game-high 27 points while freshman Winston Shepard had 18 and Chase Tapley 16 for the Aztecs (14-3, 2-1).
San Diego State hadn't lost at home since a 77-67 defeat to New Mexico on Feb. 15.
"I'm proud of our fight and effort, especially in the second half, and we need now to clean up what we didn't do well, but leave it on the doorstep," said coach Steve Fisher, whose Aztecs have earned a share of the regular-season MWC title the last two seasons. "I told our players, one of the fibers of this program has been the ability to be resilient and not lose back-to-back games. Before I could say anything, Jamaal Franklin made the comment, 'Nobody's going to go undefeated in this league.' ''
Marshall had five straight points for UNLV, including his second coast-to-coast layup and a drive up the key for a 73-70 lead with 4:05 left before Franklin made a layup and was fouled by Marshall—his fourth—and converted the three-point play to tie it.
"I was just trying to read what they were giving me," Marshall said. "Khem did a great job of setting picks for me. Anytime I got in the lane, I was just trying to get to the rim."
UNLV went back ahead 76-73 when Dejean-Jones made one of two free throws and Birch had a putback.
On SDSU's next possession, Franklin and Tapley both missed 3-point shots and the Aztecs missed two close-range shots.
UNLV rebounded, called a timeout and Dejean-Jones missed a long 3-pointer. However, Hawkins grabbed the rebound and put it back for a 78-73 lead with 1:18 to go.
Shepard made a bank shot with 1:05 left. Marshall missed for UNLV but Birch grabbed the rebound and scored to make it 80-75.
"We kept in the back of our mind, North Carolina we were up and then they made a run," Marshall said, referring to a 79-73 loss at Chapel Hill on Dec. 29. "We weren't tough enough. Then also the same thing at the Pit. I think this is a good start for us to be mentally tough and physically tough. Guys made some big plays down the stretch for us."
UNLV coach Dave Rose said Marshall asked out of the game a few times, "so I relented and gave him about 20 seconds of rest. But he is just so good off the high ball screen when he has space."
Anthony Bennett, UNLV's leading scorer at 19.6 points per game, was held to nine points.
"We got beat tonight by a really, really good basketball team," Fisher said. "They had the ability to change shots when you think you're going to get one at the rim. They came over to either block or come over so hard that we rushed a couple of them that looked like they were going to go in. You never like to lose. But we need to say that the fight we had and the mental play we had in the second half, is how you have to play."
UNLV led 48-42 at halftime and quickly extended the lead to 10 points in the opening 3:25 of the second half. Bennett made a reverse layup and a fallaway jumper, and Marshall had a defensive rebound and drove the length of the court for a layup for a 56-46 lead.
UNLV's lead was 60-51 when the Aztecs went on a 12-0 run. Franklin made two free throws, Skylar Spencer had a tip-in, Shepard made an inside shot, JJ O'Brien made a layup on a nice pass from Shepard out near the 3-point arc, Tapley had a layup and Shepard made a bank shot for a 63-60 lead with 9:50 to go.
The Runnin' Rebels regained the lead at 64-63 with consecutive field goals by Marshall, a bank shot and a basket off a rebound.
Bennett had two slam dunks early to help the Runnin' Rebels take a 16-8 lead. He also was whistled for a technical foul after his second dunk, apparently for saying something.
San Diego State made 15 of 19 free throws in the half but shot only 40 percent from the field. UNLV shot 57.6 percent.