The Wolverines picked up their second win of the season Monday night, defeating the North Carolina A&T Aggies 78-71 for their first 2-0 start since 2008.
“They wanted to even the series up from our game a year ago,” head coach Dick Hunsaker said. “I thought we came out, we scrambled and we stuck together. Aesthetically it wasn’t really a pretty game but I just thought there was a lot of fight.”
Senior point guard Holton Hunsaker led the Utah Valley scoring again despite a difficult shooting night, finishing with 16 points on 4-of-15 field goal attempts, including 3-of-7 from three-point range.
“My teammates didn’t tell me to stop shooting,” Holton Hunsaker said of his ability to maintain his confidence. “I’m not scared to shoot another one, so as long as they don’t come against me and tell me not to shoot it, I might shoot another one.”
The offensive production was balanced for the Wolverines, who had five players finish in double figures. Utah Valley had to deal with a full court press implemented by North Carolina A&T the majority of the night and went 27-of-40 (67.5 percent) from the free throw line.
“I thought we were aggressive to the basket,” Coach Hunsaker said. “They’re a very pressure-oriented defensive team. That’s obviously a style of play that’s going to lead to some fouls.”
Senior center Ben Aird, who was limited to just 22 minutes in the season opening win against IUPUI, helped the Wolverines outrebound the Aggies and rack up 32 points in the paint. Aird contributed 15 points and 12 rebounds, seven of which were offensive boards.
“I just decided I need to be more aggressive, especially when it comes to rebounding,” Aird said. “Last game I was really disappointed in my rebounding effort, so I made a conscious effort to go crash the offensive glass and be more aggressive in that manner.”
Junior forward Mitch Bruneel followed Aird and Hunsaker on the scoreboard, tallying 14 points and five rebounds, and fueled a key sequence to close the game out.
With just over a minute to go and the Wolverines’ double-digit advantage hanging in the balance Bruneel raced down and somehow managed to deny an easy breakaway layup for the visitors. After the ball caromed off the Aggies player’s knee out of bounds, Bruneel got behind the pressure to put the game out of reach.
“I just saw him running toward the basket and I figured if I didn’t do anything he was going to get a layup, so I tried to make a defensive play,” Bruneel said. “Holton was talking about it early in the game when they were pressuring far up the court – just to go deep – and it happened to work that time and we got a dunk out of it.”
Freshman forward Zach Nelson filled up the stat line with 12 points, a team-high six assists, four rebounds, three blocks and two steals. Holton Hunsaker referenced his excellent court vision when describing his importance to the Wolverines.
The bench came through when it was needed most, sophomore guard Hayes Garrity leading the reserves with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting.
“He did a very good job coming off the bench,” Aird said of Garrity. “He’s a game changer as far as energy goes and his athleticism. He wasn’t the only one though; it was really a team effort.”
Senior guard Keawe Enos had seven points and junior forward Chad Ross chipped in four off the bench, two of which came on a ferocious one-handed slam, to round out the Utah Valley point total.
The Wolverines were unable to book a flight for tonight into Stillwater, Okla., the site of their first road game of the season tomorrow (6 p.m. MST), so they will leave tomorrow morning from campus at 3:45 a.m. The showdown with the eighth-ranked Cowboys of Oklahoma State may provide the most highly touted opponent Utah Valley has ever encountered.
“That is definitely a challenge, but it’s an experience we’re looking forward to,” Aird said. “We’re just going to go out there and compete and represent UVU the best possible way we can. The circumstances might not be ideal, but we’re just going to go out there and give it all we have and see what happens.”
The team may be without one of its four seniors, guard Taylor Brown, who left in the first half after suffering a sprained ankle on a play that was hard to stomach as a viewer.
Oklahoma State is 1-0 on the season after defeating Mississippi Valley State 117-62 in its opener. The Cowboys feature a top-five projected NBA draft pick in point guard Marcus Smart, but can beat their competitors in a number of ways, as demonstrated in their first game when Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte both finished with more than 20 points.