Tim Castaneda, Sports Writer, @xTIMBOxSLICEx
UVU men’s basketball honored seniors Mitch Bruneel, Chad Ross and Brenden Evans, but it was sophomore Zach Nelson who led them to a 74-69 win over CSU-Bakersfield behind a career-high 29 points Saturday on senior night.
Bruneel, Ross, and Evans leave the UCCU Center as Wolverines players in winning fashion, on the night they were honored prior to playing in front of the home crowd for the last time in their collegiate careers.
“I am so happy for those three seniors. They played with great effort and energy,” said UVU head Coach Dick Hunsaker. “It was just real nice to see those kids come out and play with spirit and enthusiasm. They played together and I’m happy for them, it’s always special to win your last game on senior night.”
The seniors shared their thoughts and feelings on the overall experience of both playing at the school and having to move on.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling. I mean, it’s an amazing experience, especially tonight when we had some players come out and play their hardest,” said Bruneel. “It’s one of those moments that you’ll never forget. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to come out with a win with my teammates knowing that this is my last time to play on this court.”
“It’s just a great experience being at Utah Valley. It is kind of sad to walk away,” added Ross. “But I think the lessons that you learn during the experience, I know I won’t forget them. I’m just thankful that I was able to play here. I really couldn’t ask for more, being a student-athlete.”
“It’s definitely emotional for me, as I’m sure it was for the other guys,” said Evans. “It’s been a fun journey. It’s hard to leave your court, but it makes it a lot easier with a good win.”
Nelson took it upon himself to see them go out on top, as he bested his previous career-high of 26, scored in a game at Bakersfield earlier this season, while also adding nine rebounds, five assists and two blocks. He finished the game shooting 8-for-13, 7-for-11 from 3-point range, including three consecutive 3-point baskets to start the second half.
“It was wonderful to see Zach play in that manner, intensity and level,” said coach Hunsaker of the forward’s play. “He’s shouldered so much responsibility on our team. He is a point-power forward, scorer, and rebounder. I’m very happy for him.”
After Nelson hit his seventh 3-point shot of the night, the game was seemingly out of reach for Bakersfield, who trailed 57-43 with 13:05 remaining in the game. But the visiting Roadrunners sped up their scoring to pull within two points, as Dashawn Richmond hit a 3-pointer up top to cap off a 12-0 run and bring the score to 57-55 with 8:16 to play.
However, following a timeout to stop Bakersfield’s run, guard Donte Williams provided a spark for the Wolverines to regain momentum the rest of the way, as he scored a 3-pointer and fast break layup on back-to-back plays. He also imposed his will on the other end of the court by rejecting a Bakersfield shot after his personal 5-0 run.
Williams ended the night as the second-highest scorer with his 19 points. He also added three rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots.
A great shooting night saw the Wolverines lead by as many as 17 points in the second period behind a 56-percent shooting night from beyond the arc, which started with the game hitting seven-consecutive 3-pointers to start the game.
“Sometimes, the ball just goes in and sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in that much. That’s kind of the story of our year,” said Evans. “Luckily, it was definitely a night where the ball was going in and that really sparked us, right from the get go.”
After coming into the game ranked last in the conference in 3-point shooting percentage as a team, hitting just 28 percent on the year, UVU topped the league’s third-best team in that category, as Bakersfield ended up shooting 27 percent from deep.
Ross attributed the team’s fantastic shooting touch to Bruneel’s pre-game dancing and the team enjoying itself in its last game of the regular season.
“I really think we shot the ball so well because ‘Money Mitch’ (Bruneel) did the dougie in the huddle before the start of the game,” he said. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened, so on that note you got to go out there and have fun, and enjoy the game. That was the kind of night we all had, you can’t beat that, it was a great experience and there’s no better way go out.”
With the win, and a Chicago State loss to New Mexico State, the Wolverines head into the Western Athletic Conference Tournament next week as the No. 5 seed. They finish the 2014-2015 regular season 11-18, 5-9 in WAC play.
The team kicks off WAC tournament play in a rematch against No. 4 seed Bakersfield at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 12, at 3 p.m. MT.