My time at Utah Valley has really been a joy. It’s been a home for me. I came here right out of high school, and I’ve seen the growth and the progress this university has made. —Zach Nelson
OREM — Eight years after he first signed a national letter of intent, Zach Nelson may seem to be living on borrowed time with the Utah Valley University basketball team.
He’ll take every moment of it, as the Wolverines prepare for a quarterfinal matchup with San Francisco in the College Basketball Invitational. The game tips Monday night at 8 p.m. MST.
“My time at Utah Valley has really been a joy. It’s been a home for me. I came here right out of high school, and I’ve seen the growth and the progress this university has made. It’s been incredible to be a part of it,” Nelson said after the Wolverines’ 87-65 win over Eastern Washington in the CBI first round last Tuesday.
Nelson’s career with UVU began when he signed with the program in 2010. It’s a career that’s seen him go from redshirting his first year right out of high school, to becoming a starter as a freshman following a two-year LDS Church mission, to coming off the bench as a senior in 2017-18.
In between, Nelson has been a steadying force with the Wolverine program. His top two seasons in a UVU uniform, from a individual statistical perspective, came in his first two years.
Nelson averaged 10.5 points and 6.3 rebounds as a freshman in 2013-14 while starting all 32 games and helping Utah Valley win the WAC regular-season championship. The next year, Nelson averaged 11 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
Following a year missed to injury that forced him to use a medical redshirt, Nelson again took a starter’s role for UVU in 2016-17, averaging 7.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
This past year, Nelson has largely come off the bench — starting five games — as a key reserve. He also missed the team’s first six games due to injury and is averaging 4.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game.
“Zach Nelson has played every role imaginable. This year for this team, he’s played every role. He’s been injured, out of games. He’s been a starter; he’s been coming off the bench. He’s been frustrated he’s not getting enough opportunities; he’s been overwhelmed with too many opportunities,” UVU coach Mark Pope said.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Nelson — through everything that’s been thrown at him — accomplished something only six other Wolverine players have done. During UVU’s CBI first-round win over Eastern Washington, he passed the 1,000-point mark, joining ex-Wolverines Ryan Toolson (2,163 points), Holton Hunsaker (1,545), Ben Aird (1,516), Ronnie Price (1,245), David Heck (1,078) and Isiah Williams (1,066).
He entered the game needing nine points to reach the mark. When Nelson subbed back into the game with 3:08 remaining in a blowout, he still needed five points to reach the milestone.
“I told Coach Pope at the end there, I didn’t know if he was going to put me in. I told him, ‘I’ve just got five more. I want to do it in front of these guys, in front of this environment.’ (It’s) because of what they’ve done for me throughout my career,” Nelson said.
Nelson went on the attack, scoring in the paint on the first possession after re-entering the game, putting him three points away.
The next possession, he was fouled and made both free throws, and he stood one point away.
UVU then had a turnover, followed by a missed jumper by Nelson that, despite the miss, brought the crowd, and especially the Wolverine bench, to its feet.
After Eastern Washington had an empty possession, the Wolverines called a 30-second timeout. They immediately fed the ball to Nelson, who made a strong move to the basket and put home the benchmark points with a right-handed layup with 1:24 to play.
It sent the UVU bench into a flurry of cheers.
“Our locker room is a circus. We have every different type of person that you could possibly imagine,” Pope explained. “I love having a spicy locker room, and we certainly have it. That was a great example of it. Everybody on our team was so genuinely happy that Zach could have that. It’s because there’s a lot of love in our locker room.”
One of the loudest cheers came from fellow senior Kenneth Ogbe.
“For guys like Zach that helps me our team so much, for a guy that helps me personally so much in life I guess, yeah, I was happier than him,” he said.
It was just the latest triumphant moment in a UVU career for Nelson, who is the only Wolverine to have at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 200 assists in his career. He is in the top 10 in 18 different UVU career categories, among them defensive rebounds (second at 436), games started (third, 95), rebounds (third, 588), field goals made (tie for fifth, 386) and assists (sixth, 246).
Nelson, according to the school, is the third-oldest player in the NCAA this year, at 25 years and 272 days old heading into the game against San Francisco. He has a head start on his life beyond the court. Like Ogbe, Nelson earned his MBA from UVU this past summer, and he also earned an undergraduate degree in accounting.
While his role has changed on the court, that hasn’t diminished his coach’s trust in him.
“He’s savvy, veteran, skilled, experienced, and I trust him in the post,” Pope said. “If you track our games, most of the times when he subs in cold off the bench, we’re going to him in the post and probably the next possession we’re going to him, too.”
On a team with 13 transfers, he’s the original Wolverine among this group.
And he’s proud of his time in Orem, no matter how long this postseason run lasts.
“This community has really become my family, and I wanted to show my love and respect for them and accomplish this together,” Nelson said.