It’s hard to quantify how far the UVU men’s basketball team fell in their semifinal loss to NJIT, but here’s an attempt:
• They went from winning 13 games in a row to dropping two straight
• They failed to win a game in the Great West Conference Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second year in a row.
• Against NJIT, they led by as many as 11, trailed by as many as nine and came back to force overtime before losing 88-78.
Yet it wasn’t the numbers, stats or facts that gnawed at head coach Dick Hunsaker the most following the game. It was knowing the five seniors responsible for 39 NCAA wins in two years had played their last game.
“I just feel bad that the five seniors have to have that feeling,” Hunsaker said. “It stings, it deeply stings for those five kids. They’ve done a lot for Utah Valley University and representing our basketball program. We’ve been a competitive team for two consecutive seasons…actually the two best Division I seasons we’ve had at Utah Valley, and I give a lot of credit to those five seniors.
Each of them reacted differently as the overtime deficit grew. Geddes Robinson continued to fight for offensive rebounds, hoping hard work would yield the result he had seen so often this season. Isiah Williams tried to shoot the Wolverines back into the game, searching for one more signature moment in his home town of Chicago.
In the end, however, a defensive sequence from Keith Thompson may have said it best. The senior transfer contested NJIT guard Ryan Woods’ 3-pointer as closely as he could without fouling, his hand practically touching Woods’ face.
When the shot went in, Thompson stood there, his face a picture of disbelief. The deficit was five and UVU was on the verge of bowing out early. Again. For Williams, Robinson and Thompson, all of whom arrived as transfer students in 2010, it was as unexpected as it was too soon.
“You want to keep winning, keep playing” Williams said. “We’ve got five seniors on our team this year that I might not ever, ever see again after these last couple months. It’s hard. It’s hard.
The seniors weren’t the only ones left wanting after yet another disappointing conference tournament. Had the Wolverines won out, they would likely have been invited to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT). It wouldn’t have been on par with the NCAA Tournament, but it would have marked the team’s first ever national postseason of any kind.
Instead Friday marked another disappointing exit. UVU failed to close out on NJIT’s shooters, giving them all the confidence they needed to hit contested daggers later in the game. The Highlanders ended with an 11-for-21 showing from 3-point range, led by Chris Flores’ 27 pionts and five 3-pointers.
“There were multiple momentum switches throughout the course of the game. I think that we entered the game, if I’m not mistaken, as the 10th best 3-point defensive team in the nation. Our ability to defend the arc fueled their team and their shots. Frankly, tha gave them the momentum shifts and sparks that they needed.”
Meanwhile, the Wolverines weren’t efficient enough. Williams and sophomore guard Holton Hunsaker combined for 46 points, but needed 43 shots to get there. Robinson and center Ben Aird were limited to 10 and eight points, respectively, a far cry from their combined 41 points and 66 percent shooting in the two teams’ last meeting.
In the end, the most important stats are 0-for-3 (wins in conference tournaments) and 0-for-5 (games left for five seniors).
“They deserve better than to have their career end in a conference tournament, back-to-back years in very difficult games,” Hunsaker said. “This is our last game. I feel very bad for each of them, because I know each of those five seniors are hurting. “
Matt Petersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @TheMattPetersen.