LAS VEGAS — For a good portion of the night, Thursday's WAC Tournament game between Utah Valley and Missouri-Kansas City resembled anything but a lopsided contest one might expect from a No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup.
With UMKC forcing UVU into 13 turnovers and just five points during a nearly 15-minute stretch, the Kangaroos held a lead over the higher-seeded Wolverines through a good portion of the second half.
The Wolverines, though, followed the lead of senior guard Conner Toolson and sophomore center Richard Harward to a hard-fought 71-64 victory over UMKC on Thursday night in the WAC quarterfinals at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
"This is the definition of what March is supposed to be, what tournament play is supposed to be," UVU coach Mark Pope said. "These games come down to guts. There's nothing pretty about them, with both teams out there just slugging it out."
Harward came up big down the stretch, including hitting a left-handed putback with 12.9 seconds to play off a Toolson miss to give UVU a 69-64 lead.
The Roos' final possession came up empty, and Toolson, who had 21 points, wrapped up the win with a pair of free throws.
Harward had 15 points and eight rebounds off the bench for UVU (24-8).
"I realized someone just needed to get us some energy and I focused on getting rebounds," said Harward, who scored 13 of his points after halftime.
UVU led by as many as nine points in the first half, including after Toolson hit a 3-pointer with 4:53 to go until the break. That was the Wolverines' last field goal of the first half, though, as UMKC (11-21) proceeded to go on an 11-0 run and take a 37-35 lead into halftime.
That offensive lull stretched into the next half, as UVU didn't hit its second field goal of the second half until just over 10 minutes remained.
The Wolverines fought their way back into the contest behind Toolson and Harward, eventually tying the game at 54-all and 59-all before outscoring UMKC 12-2 in the final three minutes.
Pope said the Roos went to a zone near the end of the first half and it threw off the Wolverines' offense for that long stretch.
"Our spacing wasn't great, we had guys on the floor that were out of (their) scoring areas," the coach said. "We weren't executing our offense with pace, and all that falls on me. The way we got out of it is, our players are just tough dudes. They just found a way to make it work."
WAC Player of the Year Jake Toolson was held to seven points on 2 of 9 shooting, including 0 of 5 from 3-point range, though he added seven rebounds and two of the team's five assists.
Isaiah White scored nine points for UVU, including a pair of first-half 3-pointers, as the Wolverines hit six 3s before the break. They made just 1 of 12 in the second half.
Xavier Bishop paced UMKC with 17 points and six rebounds in the loss.
Both teams struggled shooting in the second half, as the Roos made 37 percent of their shots from the field, compared to UVU at 37.9 percent.
The Wolverines held a 36-27 rebounding edge, and cut a 22-8 edge on points in the paint in the first half for UMKC to 32-26 by game's end.Comment on this story
Up next for UVU is a matchup with the winner of Grand Canyon and Seattle in the tournament's semifinals. The game will tip at 9:30 p.m. MT and will be streamed on ESPN Plus. Top seed New Mexico State will play fourth seed UT Rio Grande Valley in the other semifinal, starting at 7 p.m.
UVU is advancing to the WAC semifinals for the third straight year. The Wolverines will seek to make the championship game for the first time.
"In tournament play, you just lift your level (of play). That's just the emotion of the game," Conner Toolson said.