SALT LAKE CITY (AP)—Not many stars ask for a breather.
It was a sign of maturity for San Diego State’s Kawhi Leonard, who overcame shortness of breath at high altitude Saturday to help No. 6 San Diego State escape with a 71-62 win over Utah and stay unbeaten.
“He never asks to come out, but he could hardly breathe,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said of Leonard, who pulled himself out of the game three times and finished with a team-high 20 points. “But I’d rather have it that way than to play through it and play sloppy at the defensive end.”
Malcolm Thomas added 17 points and 14 rebounds for the Aztecs, who improved to 17-0 (2-0 Mountain West Conference).
Utah, which led 34-33 at halftime, has now lost six straight to fall to 7-9 (0-2).
The Aztecs held a 43-40 advantage on the boards and had four blocks. But it was the 3-point shooting of D.J. Gay that made the biggest difference.
He hit four 3s in the second half after missing five of his first six shots to finish with 18 points for San Diego State.
“He’s not our best player, but D.J. Gay is our most important player,” Fisher said. “He personifies playing flat-line, not getting too high, not getting too low … and I love him to death. That’s why he’s the captain of our team.”
Gay, who was making his 100th career start despite a calf injury, hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cap a 13-5 run to open the second half that gave the Aztecs a 46-39 lead.
After Utah pulled within 57-56 on a layup by J.J. O’Brien with 8:45 left, Gay fueled a 10-0 run with two more 3-pointers to extend San Diego State’s lead to 67-56.
“Whatever we need at the time, D.J. comes in and steps up,” Leonard said. “If we need a steal, D.J.’s going to get the steal. If we need a score, he’s going to score.”
Gay said he simply couldn’t get a feel for the ball in the first half.
Taking a couple of extra shots at halftime helped.
So did a venting of emotions at halftime, after the Aztecs committed 10 first-half turnovers.
“We got frustrated in the first half, with ourselves, with the officials,” Fisher said. “You can’t do that. You can’t play that way. We had a lot of emotions to show. We talked about that at halftime, and said leave it in the locker room. Forgive yourself, forgive your teammate, forgive me for yelling at you, but don’t forget how you made the turnover and don’t make them in the second half. We were much better composed (in the second half), played the way a veteran team should play.”
Utah coach Jim Boylen once again said his team played a solid 34 minutes only to let the game get away.
“We got stung by a run and didn’t react very well,” said Boylen, who was back on the Utah bench after missing a game because of a family illness. “After we got stung, we stopped sharing it and moving it and you saw what happened in the game. We have to handle it better when a team makes a run.”
Josh Watkins led Utah with 24 points and Will Clyburn added 17 and 10 rebounds. The Utes also got 10 rebounds from the freshman O’Brien and six from 7-3 center David Foster.
“I was excited about David Foster,” Boylen said. “I thought he was back to who he is. That was encouraging. He affected the game.”
It was the thin air that affected the game early.
“Those first two or three minutes it feels like your chest is on fire,” Gay said.
San Diego State, with the win, is still only 4-30 in Salt Lake City. It was the first time the Aztecs have beaten Utah three straight and the first time they’ve ever won two in a row in Salt Lake City.
It won’t get much easier.
Saturday’s game was the beginning of a challenging stretch for San Diego State. The Aztecs play 25th-ranked UNLV at home Wednesday, then face New Mexico on Jan. 15 in the Pit, where the Lobos have won 15 straight.
They’ll face 15th-ranked BYU on the road Jan. 26.
Gay knows if the Aztecs are to keep the nation’s second-longest win streak (behind Duke) going, they can’t rely on second-half runs.
“We know it’s going to happen; we never know when it’s going to happen,” Gay said of an Aztec run. “That’s a good thing and a bad thing because it can come back and bite us. We can’t be on a roller coaster. We have to play at a high level for 40 minutes.”