Weakness turns to strength as Wolverines top Vaqueros

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Strong free throw shooting down the stretch helped lift Utah Valley over the UT Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros 78-74 on Friday night at the UCCU Center.

The Wolverines improve to 9-9 (7-3) and UTRGV drops their first WAC game as they fall to 9-5 (2-1).

The coaches and staff all wore orange face masks with ribbons to commemorate late UTRGV head coach Lew Hill, who passed away suddenly at the age of 53 earlier this year. Jai Steadman has stepped in as interim head coach for the program.

“We played a great team tonight,” head coach Mark Madsen said. “They have gone through something more difficult than most of us can even imagine. That being said, the tenacity with which they played, you’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They battle every single night.”

UVU won the opening tip but didn’t do much after that over the first few minutes. Both teams struggled to find the bottom of the net early on as they collectively missed their first seven shots. The Vaqueros finally got onto the scoreboard with just under 18 to play with a slam dunk. Senior guard Jamison Overton knocked down a jump shot a few minutes later for UVU — the only points the team would score in the first seven minutes of play.

UTRGV looked like they might run away with the game as they led 13-2 with 13 minutes in the half but the Wolverines weren’t ready to roll over just yet. Sophomore guard Colby Leifson hit a 3-pointer to kick off a 17-6 run during which the Vaqueros went more than two minutes without scoring. A gentle hook shot by sophomore center Fardaws Aimaq finally tied the game at 19 with 7:27 on the clock.

The Wolverines continued to beat up on UTRGV and outscored them 33-13 in the final 12 minutes of the half to take a 35-26 lead into the locker room. Junior guard Blaze Nield deftly intercepted a Vaquero pass and scored on a fastbreak layup late in the half, while sophomore forward Tim Fuller was physical in the paint on defense — forcing the Vaqueros to shoot only 1-of-11 in the final minutes before halftime.

Eight different Wolverines had points in the first half, led by Overton with 10. Junior guard Trey Woodbury and graduate forward Evan Cole each grabbed seven boards. As a team, UVU shot 43.8% from the field but only 40% from the charity stripe in the half.

The second half had a lot of stop-and-start action as both teams accrued frequent personal fouls. The Wolverines played in the bonus for the majority of the half and the Vaqueros’ graduate forward Jeff Otchere fouled out with a few minutes left to play.

UVU commanded a lead for the entirety of the half but the Vaqueros refused to give up without a fight. The visitors picked up the effort on defense, pressing the Wolverines and trapping them when they tried to cross half court. Their stingy defense forced a number of errant passes and UVU often struggled to advance the ball cleanly.

“UTRGV is one of the best pressure teams in the country,” Madsen said. “Javon Levi … he came up with seven steals. Whether it was full court or half-court, they found a way to bring that pressure. Coach Steadman is doing a tremendous job sending the guys to the glass and changing what they’re doing on the court.”

Limiting Aimaq’s inside looks was clearly a point of emphasis for the Vaqueros, but Aimaq — who picked up his 13th double-double of the year — showed a willingness to take on the role of playmaker with a handful of clutch passes, including a backdoor assist to Nield who converted a 3-point play after being fouled on the layup.

UTRGV continued to chip into the Wolverine’s lead and managed to pull within two with less than 15 seconds left. Sophomore guard Le’Tre Darthard made a pair of clutch free throws with 13.8 on the clock to give UVU a 76-72 lead. A lengthy review followed yet another foul by UTRGV, and the referees eventually assessed a double technical foul against Cole and UTRGV’s Javon Levi. Woodbury made another two free throws to further ice the game and the Wolverines came out on top 78-74.

Aimaq only scored six points in the first half, but exploded in the second with 16 to lead the Wolverines with 22. He shot 8-for-11 from the free throw line in the second half, his success from the line was a major factor in the team’s win. 

As a team, UVU shot 76.9% from the free throw line in the second half, well above their season average of 61.9%.

Cole led the team with 14 rebounds and Aimaq added 13 of his own. Overton scored 14 points, while sophomore guard Jaden McClanahan dished out eight assists with only two turnovers. McClanahan played a crucial role as facilitator — in 14 minutes of play he was the only Wolverine with a positive +/- in the second half.

The Wolverines now face the difficult task of beating the same team on back-to-back nights. UVU has split the past three series against conference foes — highlighting the difficulty of securing the elusive conference sweep.

“What we talk about a lot is having energy,” Madsen said. “It’s very difficult to get a single win at any level. It’s even more difficult to play any team twice in a row — whether you’re talking about the NBA, college or high school — because the teams get to know each other well. I think the biggest thing that I would like to see from our guys is just to come out and play incredibly hard. It’s going to be another battle.”

UVU will host UTRGV again on Saturday, Feb. 27 in the UCCU Center. The game is scheduled for 6 p.m. MT and will be aired on the WAC Digital Network and ESPN 960 AM.