San Diego State beats UNLV for Mountain West crown
AP Sports Writer
LAS VEGAS (AP) – On short rest, both San Diego State and UNLV were laboring, gasping for air and feeling the effects of tired legs and aching arms.
Kawhi Leonard would have none of it.
“I just came out with high energy,” San Diego State’s fantastic freshman said after leading the fourth-seeded Aztecs (25-8) to the Mountain West Conference title Saturday – and the automatic NCAA tournament bid that comes with it.
Leonard scored 16 points, grabbed a career-best 21 rebounds and sank all eight of his free throws in the final two minutes as San Diego State fended off UNLV 55-45.
Third-seeded UNLV also burnished its NCAA credentials during the week. The Runnin’ Rebels (25-8) hope to join San Diego State, No. 8 New Mexico and No. 14 BYU in the field that’s announced Sunday.
“This is high level basketball,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “This is a really good league that has nine teams in it and four of us are going to go to the NCAA tournament. That’s representing your league well.”
It’s time to really represent, Fisher suggested.
“Now what we need to do is step up and win a few games,” he said. “That’s the challenge we will all face. I think New Mexico will get the highest seed that we’ve ever had. That will help. I don’t know about the rest of us. But we need to roll up our sleeves and find a way to win some games now.”
San Diego State upset New Mexico in the semifinals, the highest ranked team the Aztecs have ever beaten away from home, and on Saturday sealed its fifth straight postseason berth – a first in the program’s 89-year history.
Leonard, who averaged 9.5 rebounds in the regular season, finished with 39 rebounds in 72 hours and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Yet, he sealed the title with his prowess and poise at the line.
His two free throws with 1:54 left gave San Diego State a 48-42 lead, and he made six more in the final 54 seconds to hold off the Runnin’ Rebels, who got 11 points each from Tre’Von Willis and Oscar Bellfield.
D.J. Gay added 11 points for San Diego State, which lost 52-50 to Utah in last year’s title game, then turned over its roster after losing four starters.
“A lot of new faces – but a lot of talented new faces,” Fisher said. “We got beat last year by Utah by two, and we lost four starters and five of our top eight guys. This group, we knew we were going to be good; we didn’t know how good.”
Both teams were worn out after upsetting ranked teams in emotional, hard-fought semifinals Friday night, the Aztecs dispatching top-seeded New Mexico and UNLV ousting BYU, the tournament’s second seed.
The toll of those taxing wins showed up Saturday afternoon as both teams struggled to find an offensive rhythm. Time and again, shots that were falling a night earlier clanged off the front of the iron.
And Leonard was crashing each and every board, collecting seven offensive rebounds and 14 more off the defensive glass.
“Leonard is fantastic. He does a terrific job in every way. He may set the standard for strong athletes, combination of both strength and athleticism,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said.
It took a flurry of baskets in the final two minutes of the first half for the Aztecs to take a 25-22 lead into the locker room.
With Leonard knocking down his foul shots and cleaning up the glass, the Runnin’ Rebels didn’t have a chance in the final minutes.
“There’s no way you can keep him off the boards,” teammate Billy White insisted. “That’s what he likes to do. … Sometimes I think it’s impossible to make a rebound, he’s just there.”
At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Leonard isn’t usually the biggest player on the court, but he plays like it.
“You just got to be fearless and just have heart and just crash, just crash every board that goes up, try to hit a body,” Leonard said.
Fisher took pride in having outrecruited schools from the Pac-10 for the services of California’s Mr. Basketball.
“We don’t have to get on knee pads to recruit against the Pac-10,” Fisher said. “We don’t beat ’em often. But we got a guy that right now they would all love a mulligan to try to get involved with him. He’s a San Diego State Aztec and will be forever.”
Or at least for another year.
Leonard said he’s coming back for his sophomore season, and that means the rest of the league’s coaches will have him squarely on their minds when they hit the recruiting trail.
“He’s awfully tough,” Kruger said. “Everybody would like to recruit a guy to match up with him, but it’s hard to find those.”