Wolverines rolling heading into WAC Tournament

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Photo by Brigham Berthold

With the WAC Tournament tipping off Thursday, the Wolverines couldn’t be peaking at a better time. After a performance in conference play that left a lot to be desired, the last two weeks of the regular season served as a reminder of this team’s potential.

The Wolverines’ improvement this season has hinged largely on two things: Getting 3-point shots to fall and learning to execute in late game situations. On both counts, UVU seems to be figuring it out. The Wolverines shot the 3-pointer at a program-record pace this year, averaging 27.4 shots per game. However, this isn’t always a good thing, as for the majority of the season they found themselves at or near the bottom of the WAC in 3-point percentage.

Through the stretch run, though, UVU rediscovered its shooting acumen from the earlier nonconference portion of the schedule. From Feb. 11 through the end of conference play, the Wolverines shot 40.8 percent from beyond the arc. If they can keep that going and maintain the poise they found in a late-game run to beat New Mexico State on its home court, a run through the tournament is in no way out of the question.

A first-round meeting with Seattle University offers a chance at redemption for the Wolverines. They played perhaps their worst game of the season in a 63-50 loss in Seattle on Feb. 4. In that contest, UVU shot 3-of-26 from 3-point range for 11.5 percent, a season low by a mile. A key to a first round victory will be shutting down Brendan Westendorf, who averages 14.6 points and nearly four assists per game for the Redhawks. Perimeter defense on Zachary Moore will also be essential, as he shoots nearly 40 percent on 3-point shots. On paper, though, this is a matchup UVU should win.

On the surface, the WAC seems to be a two-team race between No. 1 seed Cal State Bakersfield and No. 2 seed New Mexico State. The Aggies led the conference for much of the season but fizzled out down the stretch. They lost three of four games at one point, including their only home loss of the season to UVU. Nevertheless, it would take an upset for NMSU to not make an appearance in the title game as they’ve won big all year with an average scoring margin of 10.9 points. The Aggies boast a balanced attack with five players averaging double digits. Eli Chuha and Jemerrio Jones both average a near triple double. Chuha averages 11.9 points and nine rebounds per game while Jones tallies and average of 10.4 points and 8.4 boards.

Should UVU get past Seattle, a rested Bakersfield team will be waiting in the second round after a first-round bye. The Roadrunners, a team which Pope has called greater than the sum of its parts, represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament last year. They haven’t missed a beat this season, losing just one game in their conference slate, a 63-58 defeat at NMSU on Jan. 14.

Both regular season games between the Wolverines and the Roadrunners were tightly contested, but in both cases the Wolverines’ lack of closing ability sunk them in the end. Matt Smith has done major damage to UVU each time they’ve played, scoring 12 and 18 points and grabbing nine and six rebounds. Damiyne Durham has hurt the Wolverines from outside as he shot 50 percent from beyond the arc in their latest matchup. Beating Seattle wouldn’t be a shock for UVU, but toppling CSUB would be quite an upset.