August Miller, Utah Valley University
UVU's Mitch Bruneel dunks the ball as UVU plays Texas-Pan American in the opening game of WAC tournament in Las Vegas on Thursday March 13, 2014.
LAS VEGAS — Just two weeks ago, the Utah Valley basketball team struggled to get by Texas-Pan American, scoring just 45 points in a three-point victory in Orem.
It was a different story Thursday afternoon in the first round of the Western Athletic Conference tournament. The Wolverines scored 45 points in the first 17 minutes of the game on their way to a convincing 83-63 victory at Orleans Arena.
The Wolverines, who improved to 20-10 with the win, lit up the nets by making a WAC-record 70.5 percent of their shots (31 of 44), including an astounding 20 of 25 in the first half.
Senior guard Holton Hunsaker broke out of a recent shooting slump to score 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the field, including 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range, to lead the Wolverines. Mitch Bruneel went a perfect 8 for 8 and scored 18 points, while Keawe Enos added 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting.
The win puts the Wolverines in Friday night’s semifinals (7 p.m.) against Idaho, which edged Kansas City 73-70.
“We played a terrific half of basketball," said UVU head coach Dick Hunsaker. "Give Texas-Pan American credit. They came out and fought, which I anticipated them doing. They played their hearts out in the second half, scrambled the game to make it competitive and interesting.”
The Broncos, who finished the season 9-23, were led by Shaquille Boga with 21 points, Hurley Johnson with 16 and Shaquille Hines with 14.
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Midway through the first half, the two teams were tied at 20-20 when the Wolverines exploded. Hunsaker drained a pair of 3s to key a 17-5 run and then UVU closed the half with a 14-0 run, making four straight field goals and four free throws.
A rally in the second half, fueled by a 15-0 run, brought the Broncos within 12 points at 63-51 on a 3-pointer by Boga, but the Wolverines regrouped and pushed the lead back to 20.
UVU center Ben Aird had 13 rebounds in the game and became the first UVU player to surpass 1,000 rebounds in a career. Besides his 24 points, Hunsaker also dished out seven assists.
The Wolverines won the rebound battle 34-14 and had 22 assists.