Wolverines fall short against UAB in NIT semi-final

Reading Time: 3 minutes Utah Valley finished the season 28-9, featuring the most wins in program history and the first-ever NIT semi-final appearance for the Wolverines.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Utah Valley University men’s basketball team was defeated in overtime 88-86 by the University of Alabama Birmingham Blazers in the National Invitational Tournament semi-finals held in Las Vegas, Nevada on Tuesday. The Wolverines finished the season boasting a historic 28 wins, and this UVU club will go down as arguably the best team to ever lace them up for the university.

“I’m incredibly proud of our entire locker room of players,” said head coach Mark Madsen. “I’m incredibly proud of every man in the locker room, every manager that’s part of our organization. This team has great players, players that work. And they just completed the best basketball season in UVU school history so I wanted to celebrate the players and the job they have done. We fell a little bit short tonight but just the fight, the energy and the enthusiasm out there was incredible.”

All five Wolverine starters scored in double figures in a high-scoring, hotly-contested battle. Justin Harmon and Trey Woodbury led UVU with 16 points each, Aziz Bandaogo was all over the floor with 14 points and 16 rebounds, Tim Fuller scored 14 points and grabbed eight boards in addition to two blocks and Le’Tre Darthard scored 12 points. The Wolverines shot 41 FG% but a frigid 25 3P% on the night while allowing UAB to shoot 43.8 3P%. Ty Brewer led the Blazers with 30 points.

The Wolverines opened the first half flat and found themselves playing from behind the entire period. In fact, the Wolverines did not score their first made basket until the 16:23 mark. Bandaogo finally got the ball rolling for UVU but after his dunk, the Wolverines still trailed 11-2. 

Just before the end of the first half, a steal by Woodbury sparked a quick 4-0 UVU run to close the deficit to just two points. However,  UAB’s Jordan Walker buried a step-back jumper just before time expired to take a 41-37 lead over the Wolverines into the locker room.

The Wolverines’ three-point shooting woes carried into the second half, as they shot just 14.3 3P% in the closing frame. Harmon and Woodbury created life for UVU, as Woodbury scored 14 and Harmon scored eight of his points in the second half. 

UVU took their first lead of the night with 8:14 remaining off of a Fuller post hook. Right out of the ensuing timeout, UAB hit back with a 5-0 run and the Wolverines did not reclaim the lead for the rest of regulation. Trailing 74-72, Woodbury hit a huge running floater in the lane with 34 seconds remaining to tie the game. The Wolverines stood tall on the final Blazer possession, getting multiple stops and forcing overtime.

In overtime, Darthard made two free throws to kick things off, giving the Wolverines their second lead of the game. However, the Blazers responded with a 7-0 run to claim an 81-76 lead. Fuller had two free throws with 1:02 remaining that could have given the Wolverines the lead, however, he went 1-2 at the charity stripe, and the score was tied at 83 apiece. UAB’s Brewer hit a heroic jumper with 45 seconds remaining to give them the two-point edge. 

With the ball trailing by two, the Wolverines did not get a clean shot off and turned the ball over via a shot clock violation. Now playing the foul game, UAB made two free throws to claim a double-digit lead, yet Darthard hit a clutch second-chance three-pointer with four seconds remaining to cut the deficit to one point. The Wolveries made the unfortunate mistake of waiting too long to foul, as Woodbury slipped when attempting to intentionally foul and UAB made 1-2 free throws with less than a second remaining. Off of the missed second free throw, Woodbury’s full-court prayer was not answered and the Wolverines fell to UAB 88-86.

The Wolverines’ season ends with pride, as they reached the Final Four of the NIT for the first time in school history. The Wolverine’s sole other NIT appearance was a first-round loss to California Baptist University in 2014. 

The Wolverines graduate one of the program’s all-time greats in Woodbury, who earlier this season was the ninth player in UVU history to score 1,000 points. Other notable graduates include BYU transfer Blaze Nield, who was a leader and steady voice in the huddle for this team, and Tahj Small, the Tarleton State transfer who averaged 5.1 ppg for UVU this year. 

“For me it means everything,” said Woodbury. “Like I said, this is my favorite team I’ve ever played on. These are my favorite guys I’ve ever played with. I’m just extremely grateful for these coaches and these players believing in me and giving me a chance to lead them this year, and it was an unbelievable season and run.”

The future of this program is up in the air as rumors swirl of head coach Mark Madsen potentially leaving to take the University of California Berkeley vacancy. In addition, with the volatility of the current transfer portal regulations, it is unclear who will suit up again for the Wolverines and set out to claim their ever-elusive first NCAA Tournament appearance. One thing about this team can be said for sure: This team will go down as one of the all-time great squads assembled in the state of Utah in NCAA Division I basketball.