No. 7 San Diego St. 64, Utah 50
It wasn’t the Utah Utes who put a scare into San Diego State
coach Steve Fisher. It was his sensational sophomore forward Kawhi
Leonard was limited in the second half of the No. 7 Aztecs’
64-50 win over Utah in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West
Conference tournament Thursday night after taking an elbow to his
back shortly after halftime.
Leonard still managed to score 13 points and pull down 12
rebounds in 25 minutes as the Aztecs (30-2) secured the first
30-win season in their 90-year history. He left the bench at one
point and lay face down in the tunnel while the training staff
tended to him.
”I looked around when I was going to put him back in and said,
‘Where did he go?”’ Fisher recounted. ”Yeah, it gives you
concern. He never asks to be taken out – he asked to come out. He
said he got elbowed in the back and it cramped up on him.”
Leonard returned to the court but took a seat for good over the
final seven minutes.
”I think it was more precaution on my part,” Fisher said.
”When we took him out about seven, eight minutes to go, I didn’t
want to sit him for three or four minutes and put him back in. I
told him, I don’t think I’m going to put you back in. It was not
that I was fearful that his back was an issue, but I just wanted to
make sure he didn’t go in, stiffen up going back in.”
Afterward, Leonard downplayed his distress.
”Just a little cramp,” he said. ”I’m fine now. Just need to
get it stretched out. But it’s no serious injury.”
The Aztecs can ill afford that if they’re to fulfill their dream
of a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
”To be honest, I didn’t notice” Leonard’s game slip at all
after he got hurt, Utes center David Foster said. ”He’s a tough
player. He seems to play through injuries just fine. There isn’t
much I noticed on the defensive or offensive end.”
With Leonard on the bench down the stretch, Malcolm Thomas
shined, finishing with 13 points and 10 boards and coming up two
assists short of a triple-double.
The Aztecs, who have beaten everybody on their schedule except
BYU, started out slowly against the seventh-seeded Utes (13-18) but
closed the first half on a 16-3 run to take a 30-15 halftime
The Utes used a zone almost the whole game to keep the faster
Aztecs in front of them, but Jamaal Franklin helped thwart that
strategy by sinking a trio of 3-pointers in four attempts.
”He should demand more playing time,” Fisher said, smiling.
”And he already has.”
With all the talk about whether the top-seeded Cougars can
rediscover their mojo following the suspension of sophomore center
Brandon Davies for violating the school’s honor code, the Aztecs
have stayed a bit in the shadows even though they’re in the midst
of their best season.
After never posting 25 wins in the first 87 years, they’ve done
so three straight times, and their 30 wins are four more than their
previous high-water mark set two years ago.
”That’s a lot of wins,” Fisher said. ”I think we’ve earned
them. We found different ways to win. We’ve won when we’ve made 20
straight free throws. We’ve won when we haven’t made a 3-pointer.
We’ve won in a lot of different ways. I think that’s a mark of a
”The one thing we have won with consistently is pretty solid
defense. We can be a hard team to score on even when you get it
into scoring areas. We have to stay that way.”
The Utes closed to 32-23 early in the second half but the deep
Aztecs responded with a dazzling display of athleticism and speed
that swept them to a 52-29 lead with 9 minutes left.
Will Clyburn scored 20 points and Josh Watkins added 12 for the
Utes, whose 15 points at the break were the lowest in the MWC
Utes coach Jim Boylen, who guided Utah to the tournament
championship in 2009, said he wasn’t worried about his job security
after the trying season, insisting his team was on the verge of big
things as the program moves to the Pac-12 next year.
”The league was very powerful this year. It was very good top
to bottom. It was not a good year to be in a rebuilding mode with
five guys that never played Division I basketball,” Boylen said.
”But I’m encouraged and I like this group. … I haven’t worried
about my job status at all.”