LAS VEGAS — For Utah Valley seniors Holton Hunsaker and Ben Aird, it was tough to talk to the media after the Wolverines lost to Idaho 74-69 in the semifinals of the Western Athletic Conference tournament Thursday night at Orleans Arena.
Hunsaker, Aird and the rest of the Wolverines had surprisingly won the WAC regular-season title with a 13-3 record and had hopes of making it to next week’s NCAA tournament. But those hopes went up in smoke as Idaho took control early and kept the Wolverines at bay all evening.
“We’re extremely proud of our season and grateful for the success that we’ve seen,’’ said Hunsaker. “It’s always tough to lose, but looking back at the season there’s so many happy thoughts.’’
“Obviously disappointment, but nothing but good memories,’’ added Aird.
The Wolverines had beaten Texas-Pan American by 20 points in Thursday’s quarterfinals and some folks wondered if they’d used up all of their good shooting when they shot 70 percent from the field, including 80 percent in the first half.
They shot decently, just under 50 percent on Friday, but they ran into an Idaho team that is playing some of its best basketball of the season right now.
“This was the best game we’ve played to this point of the season, when you beat a team like Utah Valley on a neutral court,’’ said Idaho coach Don Verlin. “The ball just bounced our way. It was a great win for our program.‘’
It was an uphill battle for the Wolverines all night as they held the lead for less than a minute in the first half and never in the second half, although they stayed close all game.
“We got to the threshold many times, but we were never able to get over the hump,’’ said Utah Valley coach Dick Hunsaker. “They got the upper hand early and maintained the edge. They played well and congratulations to them.’’
The star of the game was Idaho forward Stephen Madison, who scored 25 points on 7-of-13 from the field, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range. Mike Scott, who has just been starting late in the season, scored 14 and Connor Hill added 12.
The Vandals hit three 3-pointers to start the game, but the Wolverines stayed close and took a brief lead, thanks to Hunsaker, who scored 11 straight UVU points before going into halftime down 30-29.
Idaho pushed the lead to 10 at 54-44 midway through the second half, but the Wolverines, like they had many times during the season, fought back.
Down 63-61, they had a chance to take the lead when Mitch Bruneel was fouled on a 3-point try, but he missed two of three to keep the score 63-62 with 4:55 left. Then Madison and Hill made back-to-back 3-pointers, and a layup by Sekou Wiggs made it 70-64.
Keawe Enos sank a 3-pointer off a miss by Hunsaker to give the Wolverines life with 50 seconds left at 72-69. Then Hunsaker forced a turnover on the Vandals with 22.2 seconds left, giving UVU one last chance.
After a timeout, the Wolverines worked the ball to the left side where Bruneel, UVU’s leading scorer on the night with 18 points, got the ball behind the 3-point line. He got a decent look, but his shot bounced off the iron, and the Vandals corralled the rebound. Madison’s two free throws with five seconds left sealed the deal.
Coach Hunsaker said he was happy with the final play “under the circumstances.’’
“Mitch did a good job,’’ he said. “I was pleased with the way Mitch wanted to take that shot.’’
Besides Bruneel's 18 points, Hunsaker scored 15, Aird had 14 and Zach Nelson 12.
Verlin was most pleased with his defense and the way his players contested shots. The Vandals did an especially good job on Hunsaker, who was held without a field goal in the second half.
As disappointed as the Wolverines are to have their NCAA hopes dashed, they will await a bid to the NIT next week, which they receive because of winning the WAC regular-season title.