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.

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

lead.

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

good team.

”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

tournament’s history.

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.”