Utah Valley University clinched at least a share of the Western Athletic Conference regular season championship after grinding out a 45-42 win over Texas-Pan American on Saturday night in the UCCU Center.
Ben Aird finished with nine points, 13 rebounds and five blocks for UVU, grabbing nine of his boards in the second half. The Wolverines (18-10, 12-3) had a 42-32 edge on the glass. Utah Valley won despite shooting just 26.4 percent (14-for-53) from the field.
"Give Texas-Pan American all the credit for our shooting percentage tonight. They were intense and well prepared," UVU coach Dick Hunsaker said. "I thought they fought tooth-and-nail and we were very fortunate that we were able to pull out tough game. We really had to compete and stay composed to grind this out.”
Mitch Bruneel finished with nine points and seven rebounds, while Zach Nelson scored eight points and grabbed nine boards. For the Broncs (9-21, 5-10), Shaquille Boga led the way with 14, and Shaquille Hines added 10.
Both teams suffered through five-plus minute scoring droughts in the first half. The Wolverines trailed 18-9 with less than six minutes left in the half before going on a 12-0 run to lead 21-18. Christian Hildebrandt knocked down a 3-pointer for the Broncs right before the first half expired, tying the game at 21-21.
With the game tied at 28-28, the Wolverines got a layup from Aird, a 3-pointer from Keawe Enos and another Aird bucket during a 7-0 run to lead 35-28 with 12:59 left.
UTPA made a late charge, getting a three from Boga with 2:54 to go to make it a 42-40 game. Following an Aird free throw, Lauri Toivonen cut it to one, 43-42, with 20 seconds left. Holton Hunsaker pushed the lead back to three with a pair of free throws, while Boga's last-second attempt to tie the game was wide and a Nelson rebound secured the win.
Next week's game against Bakersfield marks senior night for four UVU seniors: Ben Aird, Taylor Brown, Keawe Enos and Holton Hunsaker.
The Wolverines, in their first WAC season, can secure the outright title and the top seed in the conference tournament with a win next Friday against Bakersfield at home. New Mexico State kept pace with UVU with a win at Bakersfield on Saturday and hosts Grand Canyon next Thursday. The conference tournament is March 13-15 from the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Clint Burgi is the assistant athletic director for sports information at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.
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