CHICAGO — The Utah Valley University women's basketball team punched its ticket to its second Great West Conference Tournament championship game in the past three seasons with a 63-52 win over NJIT at the Jones Convocation Center in Chicago, Ill., Friday in the semifinals. The second-seeded Wolverines (15-14) will now face the top-seeded North Dakota Fighting Sioux in Saturday's championship contest at 6:30 p.m.
"It was a collective effort this evening," UVU head coach Cathy Nixon said. "We had one group step up in the first half and a different one in the second half, and I think our depth was really an advantage for us. I'm really proud of the kids for putting themselves in a position to be competing for the conference championship Saturday night."
The UVU bench helped the Wolverines jump out to an early lead in the contest as senior Jenna Johnson and junior Kaycee Mansfield sparked the rally. With the Wolverines trailing by a point six minutes into the game, Johnson hit back-to-back jumpers, and Mansfield followed it up with a three-point play the old-fashioned way to give Utah Valley a 10-6 lead.
Johnson and Mansfield each added two more points apiece, to give UVU a 14-6 advantage. The Highlanders (13-17) then put an end to the 9-0 Utah Valley run with a basket from Uju Nwankwo, but the Wolverines then enjoyed a 13-2 spurt over the next five minutes to go ahead 27-10 with 5:22 until the half.
The Highlanders scored six straight points late in the first period to get within 11, but UVU's Johnson managed to drain a floater in the lane as time expired in the first half, giving UVU a 33-20 lead into the break.
Johnson, who in the Wolverines' last game became just the fourth player in UVU's NCAA Div. I school history to score over 1,000 points for her career, paced Utah Valley in the opening frame of play with 10 points while Mansfield added nine. As a team the Wolverines shot 58.3 percent from the field and also outrebounded the Highlanders 21-8 in the first half. UVU's bench also outscored NJIT's reserves 23-8 before the break.
NJIT pulled within seven points just four minutes into the second half, at 38-31, after a Denisa Domiterova three-pointer, but Johnson immediately answered back for UVU with a baseline jumper and two free throws to put the Wolverines up 42-31. With the Highlanders still hanging around with 9:30 to play, Utah Valley's Cydne Mason and Erika Newbold converted back-to-back buckets to give the Wolverines a 50-35 advantage. NJIT then countered back with 11 consecutive points, which included back-to-back three pointers from Alyssa Albanese and Domiterova, to get within four at 50-46.
UVU's Sammie Jensen, the newly named 2012 GWC Player of the Year, then ended the scoring drought with a layup, giving the Wolverines a six-point advantage with 4:30 minutes to play.
With UVU leading by just three points and only two minutes to play, Abbie Beutler found Jensen streaking to the basket for a layup and the foul. Jensen calmly made the free throw and the very next possession Jensen converted another. She got the ball back and drove to the basket for another three-point play to put UVU up 59-52 with a 1:30 to play.
The Wolverines managed to hit their free throws down the stretch to pull out the 11-point win.
Johnson paced UVU with 18 points in the game, while Jensen added 12 points. Newbold also finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, while Mansfield finished with nine points and a game-high nine boards.
"Both Jenna (Johnson) and Kaycee (Mansfield) came off the bench and really, really gave us an edge," Nixon added. "Kaycee shot 4-for-4 from the field and had nine rebounds, while Jenna continues to shoot the ball well as of late. I'm proud of the collective effort from everybody, but those were some nice individual bright spots for us."
For the game, UVU shot 51.1 percent from the field and outrebounded NJIT 38-23.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.