A 67-53 win on the road over the UTPA Broncs Thursday pushed the Wolverines to 7-0 in the Western Athletic Conference two days prior to a Saturday showdown with reigning league champion New Mexico State.
Junior Mitch Bruneel led the way for UVU with 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting against UTPA, while senior Holton Hunsaker had 15 and senior Keawe Enos added 14. Enos was 4-for-4 from 3-point range and is converting 50 percent of his attempts on the season.
The Wolverines held a 32-18 halftime advantage before the Broncs climbed back into the game to pull within nine, 53-44. Following a media timeout, UVU made three consecutive 3-pointers to stretch the lead to 18 and never looked back.
Boasting the best scoring defense in the WAC, the Wolverines limited the hosts to just 38.6 percent (22-for-57) shooting from the field.
“We stress defense a lot and helping each other out,” redshirt freshman Zach Nelson said after Tuesday practice. “If one person gets beat, he’s going to have a lot of help on the back side.
“That’s what I try to do. If I see an opportunity for a blocked shot or to take a charge, then I’m going to be there for my teammate.”
Nelson has combined with his roommate, senior Ben Aird, to give UVU a dynamic tandem on both ends of the floor down low. Aird finished the win over UTPA with eight points, 10 rebounds and two blocks, and Nelson contributed seven points, five boards and three assists.
“We have a great relationship on and off the court,” Aird said of Nelson. “We were both freshman together before he went on his mission, so I’ve known him for quite some time. … Zach is an incredible passer. I think the style of basketball that we both play does a really good job of complementing one another.”
The Wolverines exploited their height advantage to defeat the Broncs before facing the task of guarding New Mexico State’s pair of 7-footers. UVU fell to the Aggies on the road, 72-49.
“We’re in a great spot right now,” Nelson continued. “We know, though, that there’s still a lot of basketball left to be played in the WAC. We were talking (Tuesday) at practice that the end of January and the beginning of February are some of the most important weeks of the season. We can’t be content with where we’re at.”
The matchup between the 2013 WAC tournament champ and the conference’s best team in 2014 also pitted the Wolverines’ top scoring defense against the league’s best scoring offense.
Aird and Nelson both welcomed the challenge, echoing their coach when describing their focus on the fundamentals: getting back in transition on defense; boxing out; and communicating with one another.
Execution in those aspects of the game has been so stellar for the Wolverines during their eight-game win streak that it’s difficult to remember how the team dropped five straight road games in from Nov. 12-Dec. 2.
“We’re starting to get rewarded for all the hard work we put in day in and day out at practice,” Nelson said. “It was a tough stretch we had there for those five games on the road, but we learned from our experience and we’ve really gotten better from it.”
After the clash in New Mexico, UVU wraps up its current three-game road trip in Phoenix against Grand Canyon Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN3 and heard on 960 AM the Zone.