My thought process was, let’s get back to the core of who we are. —UVU head coach Mark Pope
OREM — Coming off the bitterness of a disappointing showing in its conference tournament, one could understand when Utah Valley momentarily came out flat against Eastern Washington in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational on Tuesday at the UCCU Center.
That didn’t last long, though, as the Wolverines pushed their way to a convincing 87-65 victory over Eastern Washington.
UVU (23-10), which is led by six seniors, fell short of its goal to make the NCAA Tournament after losing to Grand Canyon in the WAC tournament semifinals last week. But the Wolverines relied on each other to stay alive in the CBI, their second straight appearance in a national postseason tournament.
“My thought process was, let’s get back to the core of who we are,” said UVU coach Mark Pope, while explaining he emphasized to his team they needed to emotionally unpack the frustration over not meeting team goals and get back to what’s “pure.”
“I want to keep winning, and I think my team feels that. We just have to keep digging until we get there, keep digging until we get to that part of every single one of my guys that is a fighter that’s been knocked down and disappointed before.”
After falling behind 10-5 in the opening minutes, UVU found its knockout mentality, particularly in the second half. UVU held Eastern Washington (20-15) to 35.7 percent shooting from the field while the Wolverines shot 55.8 percent, including 61.3 percent in the second half as they turning a seven-point game at the half into a blowout.
UVU used a pair of 9-0 runs and a 15-0 spurt in the second half to run away with the win. Seniors Kenneth Ogbe and Akolda Manyang led the second-half charge. Manyang finished the game with 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Ogbe scored 17 points and hit three 3-pointers.
“At the end of the day, we’re a group of competitors,” Ogbe said. “As soon as we got out there, we were ready to go.”
The biggest cheer of the night may have come for senior forward Zach Nelson, who went over the 1,000-point mark on a short jumper with 1:24 to play. He became the seventh player in UVU history to reach that milestone.
“It’s kind of a surreal feeling,” Nelson said. “It feels great to do it on a win, it feels great to do it on a postseason win better yet and a postseason win at home.”
UVU’s bench scored 35 points, led by 16 from Jerrelle DeBerry. Ben Nakwaasah added seven points — all of which came during an 11-1 run in the first half that helped UVU take the lead for good after falling behind 10-5 — five assists and three rebounds.
“I’m so proud of Ben. He’s grown so much this year. At the beginning of the season, we talked about what his role should grow into, and he actually got there,” Pope said.
UVU finished with 19 assists on 29 made field goals, including assisting on all 10 made shots in the first half. The Wolverines also made 22 of 26 free throws, to 10 of 14 for Eastern Washington.
Eastern Washington was paced by 27 points from Bogdan Bliznyuk, this season’s Big Sky Most Valuable Player.
UVU improved to 16-1 at home this season, including its 14th straight victory at the UCCU Center, while also picking up its 23rd win on the year, a program single-season record in the NCAA era.
“We are going to make this the best that we possibly can and we’re going to be proud of what we do. We still have a lot of work to do in that area and hopefully we can make some more progress,” Pope said. “There is nothing more therapeutic for us than trying to go get some wins. It’s just going to help us heal.”
Up next for UVU is a quarterfinal matchup next Monday against the winner of Wednesday’s San Francisco-Colgate game.