Wolverines clinch share of WAC regular season title

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Utah Valley overcame a 26.4-percent shooting night to clinch at least a share of the Western Athletic Conference regular season title with a 45-42 win over Texas Pan-American Saturday night.

“It feels great,” redshirt freshman Zach Nelson said. “That wasn’t the prettiest game, but definitely getting the victory feels good.”

The Wolverines outrebounded the Broncs, 42-32, and made 14-of-19 free throws, while limiting UTPA’s opportunities at the foul line (3-of-7).

“There were a lot of rebounds out there to be had, particularly on the offensive end for us,” head coach Dick Hunsaker said.

Both teams struggled mightily on offense as the Broncs shot just a slightly better 36.7 percent from the field.

“They run a lot of straight motion offense, so keeping track of the personnel – the shooters and – who we can help off of,” Nelson said of the Wolverines’ defensive game plan. “Trying to pack the lane lines to limit as much driving, cutting and curls as possible was the main focus.”

UVU relied on its WAC-leading scoring defense in it lowest offensive output of the season.

Senior Ben Aird filled up the stat sheet with nine points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, two assists and a steal.

“Ben is a very gifted rebounder (with) length, wonderful hands, a sense of the ball and timing,” Hunsaker said. “He’s had four years of being a very exceptional rebounder for the Wolverines.”

Nelson and junior Mitch Bruneel helped Aird control the glass by collecting nine and seven rebounds, respectively. Bruneel also had nine points and Nelson added eight points and a team-high four assists.

“I’m just trying to digest it and am real happy we have a victory,” Hunsaker said. “We really had to be tough and grind and fight and compete to pull this out.”

Two days after an overtime slugfest win over the reigning conference champs, the Wolverines made just 4-of-21 field goals over the first 14:11. UTPA built an 18-9 lead over that span before a 12-0 run gave UVU a three-point lead.

A buzzer-beating three pulled the Broncs, who were playing without leading scorer Javorn Farrell (16.9 points per game) for a second-straight game due to a nagging foot injury, even at halftime.

UVU scored the first five points coming out of the locker room to open a 26-21 lead, but UTPA clawed back to tie it. After trading scores to make it 28-28, the Wolverines went on a 7-0 run.

“That was a game of toughness,” Nelson said. “We really buckled down defensively, especially in that second half there and really made some key stops down the stretch.”

A 3-pointer from senior Keawe Enos made it 39-32 with 9:56 left, and senior Holton Hunsaker hit two free throws to give UVU an eight-point lead, its largest of the contest.

But the Wolverines were only 3-for-21 from behind the arc and had to withstand a Broncs rally to seal the win.

Shaquille Boga’s three got UTPA within two, and after Aird made one of two free throws, a layup made it 43-42 UVU with 20 seconds remaining.

Hunsaker converted both of his tries from the stripe on the Wolverines’ next possession, and Boga’s desperation 3-pointer with the clock winding down came up short.

The victory marks the first time since UVU won the 2011-12 Great West Conference title that the Wolverines have earned at least a share of the league championship.

UVU (18-10, 12-3) wraps up the regular season with a home game March 7 at 7:05 p.m. against Bakersfield (12-17, 5-10), which lost to New Mexico State Saturday night. The Aggies’ win kept them in the hunt for the WAC title, but even if both teams win their final games, the Wolverines hold the tiebreaker for the conference tournament 1-seed.