It shows us that when we play the right way, we can win. —UVU's Jake Toolson
OREM — If this ends up being a preview of the championship game in the upcoming WAC men's basketball tournament, fans of Utah Valley and New Mexico State should be salivating.
In a battle of two of the league's best teams, UVU picked up a signature win, using a late run and key play from its seniors to beat the Aggies 86-79 on Thursday night at the UCCU Center.
It’s the first league loss for the Aggies (22-4, 9-1 WAC), while the Wolverines (18-8, 7-3) stay tied in second place in conference play with Seattle (18-9, 7-3) — a winner over UT Rio Grande Valley Thursday — with just over two weeks remaining in the regular season.
"We know who we are, and that shows late in games. It starts with our seniors," UVU guard Jake Toolson said. "We’re going to ride them the rest of the way."
UVU took control of the game with a late 10-0 run that was sparked by a Conner Toolson block on a 3-point attempt, which led to a Kenneth Ogbe 3-pointer on the other end. That gave UVU a 71-68 lead with 4:49 to play.
After a New Mexico State turnover, Conner Toolson added his own 3-pointer to make it a six-point game. Following a pair of misses from the Aggies, Ogbe made a layup with 3:25 to play, giving UVU a 76-68 advantage.
After NMSU cut the deficit to four, Ogbe again hit a big 3-pointer with 1:27 to play, making it 81-74. On UVU's next possession, Jake Toolson hit Ogbe for a long pass that ended with an emphatic dunk and an 81-74 Wolverines lead, effectively putting a stamp on the game.
Ogbe credited Jake Toolson and the attitude he brings to the court as a big reason for UVU's ability to make the late run.
“(Jake)'s the biggest guy on this team that just keeps me going,” Ogbe said. "I don't know how I would play if I didn't have him right now. He just keeps telling me, 'Keep shooting. Be aggressive.' That stuff really gets me going."
Ogbe paced UVU with 22 points, four 3-pointers and three assists. Four others scored in double figures for the Wolverines, including Brandon Randolph (17 points, three assists), Jake Toolson (14 points, six rebounds and five assists), Jerrelle DeBerry (14 points, two 3-pointers), and Conner Toolson (10 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks).
Zach Lofton led NMSU with 19 points and three rebounds.
This all came without the Wolverines' top scorer and rebounder, center Akolda Manyang, missing the game for unspecified reasons. The team found out at shootaround he would miss the contest.
In his place, seniors Isaac Neilson and Zach Nelson filled the minutes at the five spot for UVU. Neilson had a pair of key second-half blocks and four rebounds, while Nelson scored nine points — more than double his season average — and added two assists while shooting 4 of 4 from the field.
"Real credit to those guys for stepping up," UVU coach Mark Pope said, while also praising the play of his top players.
"For us to be really good, there’s no way to hide from it. Conner, KO and Brandon, they have to be really good, and tonight they were really good," he said. "They've prepared to do this, and it's who they are and we're going to ride those guys a lot the rest of the season."
Thursday's result was very different from when the two teams met in New Mexico last month. That day, the Aggies surged ahead early and used a 21-4 second-half run to blast the Wolverines, 86-59.
Thursday's game looked like it might be headed that way, as the Aggies built an early 19-12 lead. But UVU fought back and owned the final few minutes of the first half, taking a 41-37 lead into the break when Ogbe hit a three with three seconds until halftime.
That set the stage for a tight second half, as New Mexico State opened the final 20 minutes by making its first eight field goals while UVU stayed in the contest by converting from the free-throw line, making 19 of 21 attempts in the game.
The Wolverines shot 58.3 percent from the field, aided by a 12-of-19 effort (63.2 percent) in the second half. The Aggies were also hot from the field, making 55.4 percent of their attempts.
UVU also won the rebounding battle, 27-25.
"It shows us that when we play the right way, we can win," Jake Toolson said.