CHICAGO — Regular season champion Utah Valley University took care of business in the Great West Conference tournament semifinals, defeating Houston Baptist 67-53 to advance to its third tournament championship game in the last four years.
UVU (15-14, 7-1) got yet another double-double from conference Player of the Year Sammie Jensen (26 points, 14 rebounds), while Tina Doughty and Kaycee Mansfield scored 16 and 15 points, respectively.
The Wolverines will face second-seeded NJIT at 3 p.m. MT for the GWC tournament championship.
"The key for us was our defensive focus," UVU head coach Cathy Nixon said. "We were able to dictate some things on the defensive end that allowed us to multiply our offensive possessions ... We struggled to find our offensive rhythm at first, but we kept executing, getting good looks, and got a great ballgame from Sammie, Kaycee and Tina."
UVU battled through a sluggish start in its first game after 13-day layoff as it opened the game 1-for-6 from the field. On the flip side, an energetic HBU (7-24, 1-7) team opened the game on 5-of-6 shooting, including a pair of treys. The quick start put the Huskies out in front, 12-5, after Shanice Steenholdt dropped in two of her team-high 16 points.
The rust was promptly shaken off, however, as Doughty caught fire at the 15:19 mark. The sophomore exploded for 14 first-half points over the next seven minutes, helping the Wolverines outscore their counterparts 22-7 in that span. Doughty went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc during the run as UVU took a 27-19 lead.
The Wolverines would lead by as many as 15 in the first half and took an 11-point advantage into the break.
As Doughty did much of her damage in the first half, Jensen did hers in the second. The senior scored 15 second-half points, going 6-of-9 from the field. That, alongside nine points in the second period from Mansfield, was more than enough to keep HBU at bay for the remainder of the contest.
Only once in the second half did HBU trim the deficit to below double-digits, coming as close as eight at 10:47 when Joselyn Pugh dropped in a layup.
Saturday marks the third time in the last four seasons that UVU has appeared in the GWC tournament championship game, pushing their all-time record in semifinals to 3-1. The Wolverines claimed the league's inaugural championship in 2010, taking the crown as a six seed. While UVU was absent from the 2011 edition, it surged to the final in 2012 only to fall to North Dakota.
NJIT (14-15) carved a spot in Saturday's championship when it defeated Texas-Pan American 52-42 in Friday's first semifinal, getting a game-high 16 points from guard Sarah Olson.
The Wolverines and Highlanders split their regular season meetings with each team winning on its home floor. After falling 49-46 in Newark — the only blemish on UVU's league record — Utah Valley earned a 64-47 victory in the return leg back in Orem.
"This will be the rubber match and I think both teams have a certain level of confidence but also a certain level of urgency to get a win," said Nixon, looking forward to Saturday's championship. "Looking at the two regular season games, it came down to which team could control the tempo. That will be a big aspect tomorrow. NJIT has some great athletes that are scrappy and physical, so we need to be poised, execute the game plan, and take care of the basketball if we're going come out on top."
UVU tops HBU, advances to tournament championship
UVU coach Cathy Nixon and player Sammie Jensen answer questions after Friday's game. Utah Valley defeated Houston Baptist 67-53 to advance to Saturday's Great West Conference championship game.
Kellen Hiser is sports information assistant at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company