Utah Valley came away with a 73-64 win over UT Rio Grande Valley on Saturday night at the UCCU Center.
The Wolverines claimed their first winning record since Dec. 9, 2020 as they improved to 10-9 (8-3) this season. UTRGV dropped to 9-6 (2-2).
UVU also celebrated senior night and honored guard Jamison Overton and forward Evan Cole prior to the game. Head coach Mark Madsen made it a point to single out both Overton and Cole during the postgame press conference.
“It’s been a tough year for everybody in terms of COVID, but [Overton] has embraced his role,” he said. “He’s someone who studies his craft. He works hard and it shows. He did such a great job of protecting the ball, controlling the tempo and making his teammates better. Can’t say enough about Overton and what he means to this program.”
“I think that there are a lot of people in our program that love Evan Cole,” Madsen added. “There was absolutely emotion in the locker room for him … for the fact that he came to Utah from Georgia Tech as a highly sought after recruit. I can’t even describe to you how much affection … how much everyone in the locker room loves Evan.”
Both Cole and Overton started for the Wolverines, along with juniors Trey Woodbury and Blaze Nield and sophomore Fardaws Aimaq.
The Vaqueros continued the tough defensive play they demonstrated on Friday night as senior Javon Levi stripped the ball from Aimaq and scored on a fastbreak layup to kick things off. Levi had seven steals for UTRGV in the previous matchup. Jeff Otchere was also a force on defense for the visitors, the graduate forward picked up two blocks in the first half and discouraged the Wolverines from entering the paint.
UVU played with a lot of energy from the start, but it was sophomore forward Tim Fuller and guard Jaden McClanahan who visibly kicked things up a notch when they came off the bench midway through the half. Fuller drew a pair of personal fouls in his first few minutes on the court and threw down a strong slam dunk on an assist by McClanahan. The team would jump out on a 10-2 run after the pair checked into the game to take a 20-10 lead with 11 minutes until halftime.
As pesky as the Vaqueros were on defense, the Wolverines played well in their own right as they held UTRGV to under 36% shooting from the field. UTRGV had only one player with more than four points in the opening frame — junior guard Uche Dibiamaka scored 14 on 6-of-9 shooting for the Vaqueros.
Fuller had two blocked shots and two steals in the half while sophomore guard Le’Tre Darthard and Cole were both aggressive on the glass. Cole finished the half with 11 points and nine rebounds, four of which were offensive.
The Wolverines held their lead for the remainder of the first half and led 38-27 at intermission after Cole knocked down a 3-pointer right before the buzzer. As a team, UVU converted 10-of-14 from the charity stripe in the half and shot 44% from behind the arc.
UVU strengthened their lead early on in the second and led by as many as 17 points midway through the half. The Vaqueros would quickly cut the lead back to six with an 11-0 run, but Overton responded with nine straight points of his own to put the Wolverines up for good. UVU comfortably maintained a double-digit lead for the majority of the final eight minutes as they held on to win 73-64.
Aimaq finished with his 14th double-double of the season as he scored 16 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. Despite the continued pressure by the UTRGV defense, Aimaq took command of the paint on both ends of the floor, scoring 14 of his points and grabbing eight rebounds in the second half.
“Fardaws is a tremendous communicator,” Madsen said. “I challenged Fardaws to have a voice similar to the voice of Deandre Jordan in the NBA. Literally, if you’re a fan, you can hear Deandre Jordan’s voice 10 rows up, 20 rows up in an NBA arena. That’s the type of communication that Daws is really growing into.”
Cole also recorded a double-double for UVU, with 14 points and 11 rebounds and Overton had 14 points as well. McClanahan and Nield combined for 12 assists and only turned the ball over three times.
The Wolverines will face what could be the toughest test of the season next week when they travel to face Grand Canyon in Phoenix. The Lopes currently sit half a game ahead of UVU in the WAC standings and the two-game series will determine who wins the regular season championship and secures the first overall seed heading into the conference tournament. Despite being picked to finish sixth and seventh in the WAC by the media and coaches, the Wolverines find themselves in prime position to make a run at the title and feel they have something to prove in their last few games.
“Look, the experts — sometimes they’re experts and sometimes they’re not,” Madsen said. “Yes, they picked us lower than where we are right now, but there are no ill feelings. A lot of times the experts can’t measure the heart of the players in this program. This is a player-led team, and players win. We have a lot of great leaders on this team that play with huge heart. We were excited this summer because we saw that from the inside, but we’ll let the experts be experts and we’ll try to focus on winning games.”
Bridger Beal-Cvetko is a junior at Utah Valley University where he is studying journalism. He has been with The Review since 2019, where he has covered the UVU men’s basketball team and the softball team during his time as Sports Editor. Bridger has also worked as a producer for ESPN 960 AM. Aside from sports, Bridger is an ardent cinephile, and loves reading fantasy and science fiction novels.