As the Utah Valley men’s basketball team was winding down the closing seconds of its biggest win of the season, Wolverine fans rushed the court, and the reigning Western Athletic Conference champion New Mexico State Aggies lashed out.
Utah Valley outscored NMSU 13-8 in overtime to regain sole possession of first place in the WAC with a 66-61 win, but it was a brawl between UVU students and Aggies players that overshadowed the basketball game.
“I don’t like to use military terms, but that was combative,” head coach Dick Hunsaker said of the game.
Despite an ugly scene that featured one student reportedly getting hit so hard that he blacked out, the Wolverines maintained their composure.
“We knew what this game was about,” Hunsaker said. “This had been a mark for everybody.”
NMSU extended its lead to 52-45 with 2:49 left and things started looking bleak for the hosts, until the senior class delivered one of its defining masterpieces.
Holton Hunsaker started the rally, making one of two free throws, and a Ben Aird layup got UVU within four.
WAC preseason player of the year Daniel Mullings found space on the Aggies’ subsequent possession behind the arc, but his shot clanked off the back of the rim and Aird secured the rebound.
Aird then drew a foul while setting a screen and sunk both shots from the foul line to cut the lead to two with only 22.6 seconds remaining.
Junior Mitch Bruneel fouled Mullings to stop the clock with just over 20 seconds to play, and after he made one of two, UVU had once last chance to force overtime.
A somewhat chaotic possession ensued, as the Wolverines scrambled to find an open 3-point shooter. Keawe Enos started to his right then dribbled back to his left, where 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar greeted him. Enos’ up-fake got Bhullar to bite, and Enos collided with the massive center in mid-air while forcing a wild attempt that went begging.
He then calmly nailed all three free throws to deadlock the game 53-53 with 4.3 seconds remaining. Aird approached his friend, and practice shooting partner to congratulate him on the clutch performance.
“I said, ‘we knew you could do it. We had confidence in you,’” Aird said of their conversation. “I knew 100 percent he was going to make all three.”
The Wolverines went to work in the paint in overtime, and Aird drew Bhullar’s fifth personal foul with 3:52 left.
Aird’s free throws put UVU up by two, but a NMSU three gave the Aggies the lead.
Zach Nelson, who finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, found Bruneel on an alley-oop, and then Aird dropped in a layup and two free throws to make it 61-56.
The Aggies would get within three, but the Wolverines went 9-of-10 from the stripe in overtime to seal the win.
As the buzzer sounded, NMSU’s K.C Ross-Miller let out his frustration by firing the ball at Holton Hunsaker while the UVU student section had already begun storming the court.
Fans and players collided in the scrum and punches were thrown. UVU TV sideline reporter Matt Baiamonte caught up with two fans involved.
“We all stormed (the court),” said Tyler Brklacich, UVU Student Administration vice president of academics. “One fan ran into another player, an Aggies player. He pushed back, then they started pushing and he was the first one to throw a punch.”
One fan was clocked so badly by an Aggie, he could only hazily recall the details of the occasion.
“He punched me in the head,” UVU student Kameron Dearing said. “It was either 23 (Mullings) or 25 (Renaldo Dixon). I was just congratulating Holton Hunsaker.”
The video appears to depict Dixon swinging at and connecting with Dearing’s head.
Ross-Miller was suspended two games by the WAC on Feb. 28 and Dixon received a one-game suspension. UVU made an official statement earlier in the day to announce that both the WAC and the university would be “reviewing the incident and gathering information.”
Aird called it a “disappointing” way for such an excellent basketball game to end, but he couldn’t thank the UVU students enough for their support.
“There was a lot of excitement around campus today,” Aird said. “I just have to give a lot of credit to the student body because they came out in full force.”
Holton Hunsaker and Aird are now tied for second place all-time on the UVU scoring list with 1,472 career points. Aird said that it’s a memory that trumps the close battles he’s been in over the years.
“It’s right on the top,” he said. “We knew that it was a huge game, and to have an atmosphere like that, and to be a senior, I’d say it’s one of the most memorable games I’ll ever have.”
Aird had 21 points and seven rebounds to lead the Wolverines, and Enos added 11 points and five rebounds.
UVU now sits in position to start the WAC tournament as the 1-seed but still has games March 1 versus Texas Pan-American and March 7 against Bakersfield. Both contests were scheduled for 7:05 p.m. in Orem.