Utah Valley was bounced by Idaho in the Western Athletic Conference tournament semifinals Friday with 74-69 loss in Las Vegas.
The loss ends the Wolverines’ NCAA tournament possibilities. However, UVU earned a berth in the National Invitation Tournament by winning the WAC regular season title.
“There’s very few regular season champions that continue and run through their conference tournaments,” head coach Dick Hunsaker said. “Particularly, a team like ourselves that did a lot of overachieving and was underrated by many until they had to put a permanent name on top of those WAC standings.”
Senior Holton Hunsaker had 15 points, eight assists and four rebounds in the defeat and couldn’t hide his emotions in the postgame press conference, where he had to choke back tears.
“Looking back at the season, there’s only happy thoughts and good things,” he said. “No one had any expectations for us. … The opportunity now to play in the NIT is more than what Ben (Aird) and I ever thought we were going to get coming to UVU.”
Aird, the Wolverines’ third all-time leading scorer behind Holton Hunsaker and Ryan Toolson – No. 1 on the list – had 14 points, eight rebounds, two assists and a block.
“We’re just a very close team and it’s just a bunch of high-character people on this team,” Aird said. “Our time spent together is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. These are some of the best friends I’ll ever have.”
UVU trailed by as many as 10 in the second half and never led after halftime, but used an 8-0 run to close the gap and got within one point after junior Mitch Bruneel’s 3-pointer made it 63-62 with 4:55 remaining.
“A number of times we’d get right on the brink of needing a play or a basket to get over the hump and maybe take a little bit of a lead, and we never were really quite there,” Dick Hunsaker said.
Idaho opened up a six-point lead with only 1:07 left, but senior Keawe Enos’ shot from behind the arc cut the lead to three with just less than a minute to go.
The Vandals were content to burn as much clock as they could on their next possession before Holton Hunsaker stole the ball away from Idaho’s Mike Scott. Hunsaker dove to collect the loose ball and it bounced off Scott’s leg out of bounds.
Bruneel attempted a contested 3-pointer with 10 seconds remaining, but on a night that UVU shot just 4-for-19 from distance – following a 10-for-15 effort (66.7 percent) from 3-point range Thursday – Bruneel’s shot bounced off the front of the rim, into the hands of Vandal Stephen Madison, who was fouled and converted both free throws to put the game out of reach.
Holton Hunsaker said the defensive pressure implemented by Idaho on the perimeter forced UVU out of its comfort zone and significantly affected the Wolverines’ ability to operate out of their half-court sets.
Despite the shooting difficulties behind the arc, UVU used a balanced attack to outscore Idaho 40-22 in the paint, which kept the Wolverines in the contest.
“They’re as good a executing offensive team as we’ve played in the WAC and they’re really hard to guard,” Idaho head coach Don Verlin said. “This is the best team we’ve played to this point of the season.”
UVU will find out its NIT first-round opponent on Sunday.
“This group will regroup,” Dick Hunsaker said. “They’ve enjoyed being with one another. There truly is a rare definition amongst them.”
Holton Hunsaker said he hopes that this team will be remembered for what it was able to accomplish rather than the fact that it came within one game of playing for an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
“This is just a start – first year in WAC play – and to be able to do what we did is pretty amazing,” he said.