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Utah Utes basketball: Thomas tears up Utes again for Aztecs

SAN DIEGO — If Malcolm Thomas could play against Utah every night, he'd be an All-American.

Thomas, San Diego State's 6-foot-9 junior forward who had his best game of the season last month in a win at Utah, had an even better one Saturday night, scoring a career-high 28 points to lead the Aztecs to a 68-61 victory over the Utes before 10,695 at Viejas Arena.

With the win, the Aztecs swept the season series against Utah for the first time in 28 years and improved to 20-7 overall and 9-4 in Mountain West Conference play.

Thomas's 28 points broke his career high of 23, set in the earlier win over the Utes, when he also had 13 rebounds. Since that game, he never scored more than 10 points and has averaged just 6.3 points per game.

But once Utah showed up, he went wild again, scoring 10 of the Aztecs' first 14 points, and he had 19 by halftime. The Utes tried David Foster, Jason Washburn and Kim Tillie on Thomas, but no one had an answer for the Aztecs' forward.

As well as Thomas played, Utah coach Jim Boylen wasn't about to gush about his performance against the Utes.

"Yeah, he made some plays ... he made a 3 ... he's a good player," was all Boylen said about Thomas.

Later, when a San Diego writer asked what makes Thomas hard to guard, Boylen simply said, "He's a good player."

The Ute coach was in no mood to compliment an opposing player after seeing his team fail again down the stretch as it has so many times this season.

The Utes had fallen far behind early, clawed their way back to even in the first half, then fell behind by 12 in the second half, only to fight back and take the lead, their first of the night.

That came with 4:37 left on a drive by Carlon Brown, who led the Utes with 13 points. The Utes seemed to have all the momentum, but their offense suddenly went dry as they could only manage a single basket by Tillie the rest of the way until a 3-pointer by Brown in the final seconds.

"We just couldn't make another play to get over the hump," said Boylen. "I thought we had open looks, open shots, opportunities and just couldn't make a play. We couldn't get a payoff."

After Brown's basket gave the Utes their only lead of the game, Thomas hit a pair of free throws and a left-handed shot in the lane. Tillie's basket cut the deficit to 59-58 with 2:42 left, but the Utes missed their next seven shots and turned the ball over once as the Aztecs kept going to the foul line.

Like they did in their Salt Lake City win, the Aztecs missed several free throws in the final minute, as Thomas missed four straight himself. But Utah couldn't take advantage.

Watkins missed two shots in the lane and Marshall Henderson, who had led the comeback with three 3-pointers, missed his final five shots of the game.

The Aztecs committed their sixth foul of the half with 5:34 left, but the Utes couldn't draw another foul the rest of the game, while the Aztecs went to the line 10 more times and shot 19 free throws. Boylen said the Utes were trying to go to the hoop to draw fouls, but none were called down the stretch.

"I thought we were trying to," he said. "I thought there were a lot of plays in there, maybe Jay Watkins got fouled, maybe Marshall got fouled, maybe Carlon got fouled. I thought we drove the ball, I thought we drove the corner. I thought we tried."

When asked if he perhaps got fouled on a pair of drives to the basket with less than two minutes left, Watkins said, "No, they were good no-calls. You've just got to make a shot."

Henderson had 12 points, while Watkins had 11 points and a team-high seven rebounds. Boylen was happy his team outrebounded the Aztecs 38-35. However, the Utes had 15 turnovers, compared to just five for the Aztecs.

Besides Thomas' 28 points, freshman forward Kawhi Leonard had 14 points and 15 rebounds.

SDSU coach Steve Fisher had plenty of good things to say about Thomas.

"He utilized his quickness to get to the rim and around David Foster several times," he said. "He just played with a relentlessness that wins for you."

The Utes play another road game Wednesday at Air Force before returning home to play Wyoming on Saturday.