SAN DIEGO (AP) — Moments after San Diego State retired Kawhi Leonard’s jersey at halftime, and with the No. 4 Aztecs trailing Utah State by eight points, coach Brian Dutcher joked with the NBA superstar.
“Kawhi was near the bench at the start of the second half and I said, ‘Go get a uniform on, Kawhi, we might need you,’ “ Dutcher said. “And he told me, ‘Hey, just win the game.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir. OK, we’re going to win the game.’ “
The Aztecs did just that.
With Leonard watching from one baseline, another guy from Riverside, Matt Mitchell, scored 24 of his season-high 28 points in the second half — including three straight 3-pointers — to help rally SDSU to an 80-68 victory Saturday night and remain the nation’s only undefeated team.
“What a great night for an Inland Empire kid to have a great game, Kawhi Leonard jersey hanging,” Dutcher said after the Aztecs extended the nation’s longest winning streak — and the longest in school history — to 23 games. “Matt stepped up and did it with Kawhi sitting there courtside watching him play.”
With Mitchell turning red-hot, the Aztecs turned a 41-31 deficit into a 68-58 lead in a span of 13 minutes.
“There’s definitely significance there,” said Mitchell, a junior forward. “Me having a big night and Kawhi’s big night, I feel like that’s very special and I’m happy I was able to show up tonight. At the same time, it’s a team sport and my teammates found me tonight, and on another night it would be another one of my teammates.”
Mitchell spent one season at Riverside’s King High — Leonard’s alma mater — before transferring.
Mitchell scored 11 points in four minutes for SDSU (23-0, 12-0 Mountain West). His third straight 3-pointer, with 13:16 to go, gave SDSU a 50-49 lead.
Yanni Wetzell then had a steal and layup, and Mitchell made two free throws to extend the lead to five.
Utah State (17-7, 6-5) ended a two-minute scoring drought on Sam Merrill’s 3-pointer. Utah State tied it at 54 on Merrill’s jumper, but Mitchell hit two free throws to give SDSU the lead.
Wetzell later hit a 3, and Mitchell hit a jumper to just beat the shot clock, and then drained a 3 for a 66-58 lead.
The comeback sent the sellout crowd of 12,414 into a frenzy, just like in 2010-11, Leonard’s second and final season at SDSU.
“Matt was rolling. He’s a hard guy to guard,” Dutcher said.
“He got us going and he willed us to the win tonight,” guard KJ Feagin said.
Mitchell “just took over the second half, He is a very, very good player,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said. “When he starts to get going like that he is a load, a mismatch nightmare. He is so quick, yet so powerful.”
Malachi Flynn and Feagin scored 13 each and Wetzell had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Merrill had 16 points and Brock Miller 15 for Utah State.
SDSU led 22-17 when Leonard walked to his seat on one baseline during a timeout with 10:34 to go in the first half. Mitchell hit a jumper to make it 24-17, and the Aztecs then went cold.
Queta Neemias made a hook shot to start the Aggies’ run and Miller and Merrill hit 3s to take a 31-24 lead. SDSU finally broke its drought when Feagin hit a 3-pointer.
Flynn, who had scored 10 straight points, air-balled consecutive 3-point shots.
Utah State made 7 of 10 3-pointers in taking a 39-31 halftime lead. They made only 2 of 11 in the second half.
At halftime, Dutcher told his players not to get discouraged or overreact.
The coach praised the crowd.
“Once we got rolling, the momentum just snowballed because the crowd was so dynamic and made it so loud and so hard on Utah State. We were able to put a nice little roll in the second half,” Dutcher said.
Merrill said Mitchell “hit some really deep 3s, but I don’t think we got out on him enough as well as we should have. We gave him a couple of easy ones, which happens when you are a good player. And he got into a rhythm and started making his shots.”
LEONARD JERSEY RETIREMENT
The Aztecs unveiled Leonard’s No. 15 jersey during a halftime ceremony that included former coach Steve Fisher. Fisher called it “the senior night I never got to have with you … This is your legacy, my friend. Look around this building.” Leonard, who played two seasons at SDSU, called it “a dream come true” and thanked Fisher, his former teammates, the student section and his Los Angeles Clippers teammates. The entire Clippers team, including owner Steve Ballmer and coach Doc Rivers, attended the ceremony.
MOMENT OF SILENCE
There was a moment of silence for Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and the seven others killed in the helicopter crash last Sunday. The game clock showed 24:24, the shot clock 24 seconds and the scoreboard showed 8.8.
Utah State: The Aggies were the unanimous pick to win the MWC title but have struggled in league play and came into this game in a four-way tie for third place.
SDSU: Leonard put the Aztecs on the national hoops map in 2010-11, when he led them to a 20-0 start, their first Sweet 16 appearance ever and a 34-3 record.
Utah State hosts UNLV on Wednesday night.
San Diego State is at Air Force on Saturday night.