SALT LAKE CITY — For the second straight year, Utah Valley and Grand Canyon met in the WAC Tournament semifinals.
Like last year, the Lopes got the best of the Wolverines late Friday night, beating UVU 78-74 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
For No. 2 seed UVU (24-9), it’s another year coming up short of earning an automatic NCAA Tournament berth. The Wolverines have yet to reach the WAC championship game, falling in the semifinals for the third straight year.
“We're incredibly disappointed. My guys poured their heart and soul out on the floor and we came up just a little bit shy,” UVU coach Mark Pope said in the postgame press conference.
Carlos Johnson carried No. 3 seed Grand Canyon (20-12) to the win, scoring a career-high 35 points while shooting 12 of 22 from the field and making six 3-pointers. He also had nine rebounds and a team-high four assists.
The Wolverines got 16 points and seven rebounds from Conner Toolson, as well as 12 points each from big men Baylee Steele and Richard Harward.
Friday’s contest went back and forth through much of the night. UVU overcame an early seven-point deficit to take a 44-40 lead into the break, but Grand Canyon countered by building as much as a six-point lead in the second half. With the game tied at 56-56, the Lopes’ Trey Drechsel hit a 3-pointer with 10:34 to play to put Grand Canyon ahead for good.
A Conner Toolson 3-pointer with 3:37 left brought the Wolverines within 73-72, but Oscar Frayer pushed the lead back to three with a layup on the ensuing possession.
On four possessions over the final three minutes, UVU had opportunities to either cut into the Grand Canyon lead or tie the game. But Jake Toolson field goal attempts on back-to-back possessions, Ben Nakwaasah turned the ball over with just over a minute to play and Conner Toolson was long on a 3-point attempt with 22 seconds remaining.
"We were struggling to get some free ball movement," Pope said of what the team was trying to do offensively late, when the Wolverines had four empty possessions while within one score. "Ben had done a terrific job with pace of the game, and trying to manufacture things out of ball screens, especially hitting the roll, so we were trying to get there. Late, we were trying to execute a couple pitch options, it just didn't pan out for us."
Grand Canyon wrapped up the win by hitting three free throws in the final seconds before Conner Toolson hit a jumper at the buzzer.
UVU lost despite holding the edge in field-goal percentage — 50.9 percent to 43.9 — and outscoring Grand Canyon 16-5 in points off turnovers. The Lopes had a 14-7 advantage in offensive rebounds, leading to 11 more field-goal attempts in the tight contest.
Grand Canyon also held WAC Player of the Year Jake Toolson to seven points on 3 of 11 shooting, including 1 of 7 from 3-point range.2 comments on this story
"Jake's an unbelievable player and we're fortunate we did a good job against him," Lopes coach Dan Majerle said.
Grand Canyon moves on to the WAC championship game. The Lopes will face top seed New Mexico State (29-4), who beat Texas Rio Grande Valley in the other semifinal, on Saturday at 8 p.m. MDT. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
What's ahead for UVU, which has already a single-season school record 24 wins, is less certain. Other postseason options for the Wolverines could include the NIT, the CBI or the CIT.