EL PASO — Leonard Allen has always wanted a watch. Not an ordinary watch. In fact, a watch money could not buy.
Allen has always wanted one of those watches players get for participating in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Dave Babcock, a San Diego State assistant who got one last year while he was across town at USD, has been watching his wrist since the first time he met the Aztecs' center.
"The first time I met Leonard, he told me he wanted a watch just like mine," Babcock said with a laugh.
It did not seem likely that the 6-foot 11-inch Allen would ever get one. Even without a watch, he knew his time was running out. After all, he was a senior--and this did not figure to be an "up" year for the Aztecs.
However, San Diego State has done what many thought it couldn't do. It is 23-7 and headed for the NCAA tournament after Saturday's 87-81 win over Texas El Paso in the final of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament.
And the big guy in the middle, the big guy who labored for so long in the shadow of the graduated Michael Cage, did much to accomplish such a remarkable reversal of what had been expected.
Leonard was dominant in Friday night's 98-84 win over New Mexico and he was the pivotal force in a second-half surge which quieted UTEP's rabid fans and turned the game around.
"Winning this game today is the greatest thing that's happened to me in college basketball," he said.
Quite likely, it was the greatest thing to happen to college basketball at San Diego State. In terms of the Aztec program, Allen's moment was a moment for the ages.
And it was not easy. Nothing ever seems to be easy for the gangly-puppy from across Texas in Port Arthur.
Because he picked up two quick fouls early in the game, he spent almost 14 minutes of the first half on the bench.
"It was hard sitting on the bench knowing I should have been contributing," he said. "I wanted to get back in there."
Occasionally, Coach Smokey Gaines would get up and walk down the sideline in front of the bench.
"Smoke," Allen would plead. "I'm ready."
But Gaines wasn't.
"I guess he didn't want me to get a third foul," Allen said. "And I guess he was right, because I eventually did foul out."
However, Allen did not foul out until 1:25 remained. By that time, he had scored 18 points, collected 9 rebounds and blocked 4 shots. He left the game for Jeff Konek to wrap up with a succession of five free throws.
And Allen did most of the damage when the game was a teeter-totter with both ends in the air. It could go either way.
UTEP had a 63-59 lead when Allen made a couple of free throws to cut the margin to two. Allen, finally in the flow, scored from inside, from the side, from the free throw line, from the lane on a turnaround jumper and from above the basket on a rebound.
In the span of less than five minutes, he had scored 11 of 12 points for the Aztecs and they had a 71-66 lead. UTEP never again got within five points.
"Everything else we were trying really didn't work," he said. "I talked to Anthony Watson and said maybe we should try getting it inside. They got it into me and I shot it and it kept going in."
Watson was the man who kept the Aztecs in the game while Allen was taking his unwanted sabbatical in the first half. He scored 16 of his 20 points before the half.
In the second half, he turned it over to Allen.
"He gets into a certain position and we just know we have to get him the ball," Watson said.
When the game was on the line, Allen always seemed to have the ball. He was always in that magical position, on the move and in the open.
"The fatigue factor came into effect in the second half," UTEP center Dave Fietl said. "My legs started to burn . . . "
And Allen was fresh and rested and playing like he knew the spotlight would never come his way if it didn't Saturday.
"Michael Cage was always our bread and butter," he said. "He took a lot of pressure off me. If a shot went up and I was out of position, I knew Michael would get it. I had more pressure this year. I had to be the dominant player on the inside. It was my job to be the intimidator."
That was the role he played Friday night, when his presence inside forced New Mexico players to adjust the trajectory of their shots. And the Lobos never quite made the adjustment.
On Saturday afternoon, Allen made his absence felt in the first half and his presence felt in the second.
His time has come--and so will the watch.