Dismal shooting forces Wolverines out in conference semis

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LAS VEGAS – Utah Valley fell to the New Mexico State Aggies 78-62 in the semifinals of the 2021 WAC Basketball Tournament on Friday night in Las Vegas.

The loss knocks the Wolverines out of the tournament and likely puts an end to their season. The Wolverines finished with an 11-11 (9-5) record. NMSU will move on to face Grand Canyon in the conference finals on Saturday, March 13 at 8 p.m. MT.

UVU won the opening tip but immediately went cold as they missed their first 10 field goals. Their only points in the first five minutes came on a pair of made free throws by senior guard Jamison Overton. Sophomore center Fardaws Aimaq — who was named the WAC Player of the Year — had a number of decent looks in the paint, but couldn’t convert, shooting 0-for-4 in the opening minutes.

The Aggies, on the other hand, had no problem scoring — they made four of their first five field goals and surged to a 15-2 lead with 13 minutes left in the half.

“There’s something to be said for being in a dogfight like that before,” head coach Mark Madsen said of the Aggies, who beat UT Rio Grande Valley the night before. “We earned the right to be the higher seed, we had the rest… as an advantage. We have to be so strong and so good that we can weather any storm.”

Perhaps it was the week off or the NMSU defense, either way, UVU was clearly out of sorts to begin the game. Junior guard Trey Woodbury dropped the first field goal for UVU with 12:33 to play. The Wolverines would then go nearly four minutes without another made field goal, only managing  to close the gap slightly thanks to six straight made free throws.

“We got off to a slow start, that’s what hurt us,” Woodbury said. “We kept chipping away at it but we couldn’t come back from that 9-0 lead they started out with.”

Late in the first half, UVU’s defense forced a few key turnovers and held the Aggies without a field goal for more than three minutes. The Wolverine offense however, struggled to take advantage with a run of their own. Junior guard Blaze Nield hit the first 3-pointer of the game for the Wolverines — a shot that careened around the rim for what seemed like an eternity before dropping in — and the Wolverines trailed 25-17 with 3:01 until halftime.

Woodbury knocked down another 3-pointer and sophomore guard Jordan Brinson added a layup off the bench. UVU drew within five of the Aggies, but NMSU went on a short run of their own to take a 32-23 lead into the locker room.

UVU shot 24% from the field in the first half — by far their worst shooting performance in any half all season. They shot 2-for-11 from behind the arc and converted 7-of-8 from the charity stripe.

Woodbury led all scorers with 11 points in the first half — no other Wolverine had more than three. Aimaq secured nine boards but shot 0-for-6 from the field and was held scoreless. UVU had only two assists in the first half and turned the ball over eight times.

NMSU drew first blood in the second half and scored seven straight points before Madsen called a timeout to stop the hemorrhaging. Woodbury knocked down a jumper out of the timeout but the Wolverines turned the ball over on the next possession and found themselves down 41-25 only four minutes into the half.

UVU struggled to rein in the Aggies’ offense and trailed by 20 with 10 minutes to play. After picking up his fourth personal foul, Aimaq left the game with seven minutes remaining on the clock. Overton also had three personal fouls, leaving UVU without any room for error.

Despite the game being all but decided, the Wolverines found another late surge of energy and managed to pull within nine, 62-53. Overton hit a turnaround jumper, then sophomore center Tim Fuller blocked a shot on the other end which led to another bucket by Overton — this time a wide open 3-pointer.

A technical foul called on Overton sent the Aggies to the line for four consecutive free throws and NMSU took a commanding 71-56 lead with under three to play. UVU refused to back down but ultimately fell 78-62.

“It’s a backbreaker when you’re making a run, especially the technical foul,” Woodbury said. “That could have been a momentum shift if that went otherwise.”

Woodbury scored 34 points and set a tournament record with 15 made free throws. Overton was the only other Wolverine in double-digits with 11 points. Aimaq grabbed 13 boards and finished with zero points and graduate forward Evan Cole had eight rebounds and seven points. 

“It’s definitely been a fun ride,” Woodbury said. “I remember back in the summer we didn’t know if we would have a season, so we were just blessed to have a season in the first place. Can’t take anything away from the season as a whole.”

“Our players left every single ounce of energy, sweat and blood on the court,” Madsen said. “You have to admire them for the passion and the fortitude they played with. Not the outcome we wanted, but we’ll continue to work.

“I wish there was another game for us to go out and prove ourselves, but it’s a tough way to end.”