Cruising to the finish line

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Teams that occupy the top spot in a conference for a sustained period of time tend to start developing a proverbial target on their backs after a while.

The Wolverines haven’t budged from first place in the Western Athletic Conference since league play began Jan. 4, and after collecting their tenth conference victory of the season in a 79-70 road win over Chicago State, it seems even more likely that the matchup with the defending WAC tournament champ New Mexico State Aggies on Feb. 27 will determine the new regular season champion.

Senior Holton Hunsaker scored 18 points, achieving at least that total for a third consecutive game, and tied his career-high with nine assists while grabbing three rebounds.

The relentless floor general has overcome a variety of bruises, cuts requiring stitches and a blow below the belt to lead UVU to the cusp of what would be its first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

His on-court excellence, combined with his 3.88 GPA, was rewarded Feb. 20 when Hunsaker was named a Capital One Academic All-American, earning second team honors. It is the first time a Wolverine men’s basketball player has achieved the recognition and only the second time in school athletics history.

“It means a lot to me, of course,” Hunsaker said. “It’s definitely fulfilling through all the hard work and things I’ve put in, but it’s probably more of an accomplishment for my mom and my wife, who have had to deal with so much of my extra study time and being away. Also, I’m thankful for their help and support along the way.”

Three other Wolverines in double figures aided Hunsaker in the triumph over the host Cougars.

Redshirt freshman Zach Nelson had 16 points, five rebounds, an assist and a steal to continue his tear toward WAC newcomer of the year, and junior Mitch Bruneel added 15 points and five boards of his own.

Senior Keawe Enos’ league-leading 3-point percentage took a hit (now 50 percent), but he still managed to dial up three treys and finish with 11 points, five rebounds, an assist and a block. Senior Ben Aird had eight points, nine rebounds and three assists and sophomore Hayes Garrity chipped in six points and five boards off the bench.

The victory set up a potential showdown with NMSU to decide the first regular season title in the new-look WAC, though Saturday’s results would still play a part.

Kansas City looked to play the role of spoiler Feb. 22 when UVU visited historical Municipal Auditorium – the past site of numerous Final Fours – before the Wolverines’ second chance to wrest the WAC throne from the Aggies.

The UCCU Center will host the rematch between the conference’s best scoring offense (Aggies – 78.3 points per game) and its top scoring defense (Wolverines – 65.9).

UVU had trouble with the size of NMSU in the first contest this season between the two as the Aggies’ 31-20 edge on the glass and their 56.8 percent shooting from the floor propelled them to a 72-49 win.

NMSU features four players 6-foot-10 or taller, including a pair of brothers measuring 7-foot-3 and 7-foot-5, respectively.

The Wolverines will need all the help they can get from their home crowd on Thursday, and admission is free for all students with a valid school ID.

Tipoff is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.