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LONG-SHOT COUG WINS IT ON 54-FOOTER

BYU's Kevin Nixon says he practices 54-foot shots, and it's a good thing.

That's how far he had to shoot to beat UTEP, 73-71, and win a Western Athletic Conference championship Saturday night in Colorado State's Moby Arena.Nixon got his chance after UTEP's Marlon Maxey's layup had put the Miners ahead, 71-70. Cougar coach Roger Reid called timeout, drew a play and sent his team of 3-point shooters out there - Nate Call, Mark Heslop, Nick Sanderson, Mark Santiago and Nixon. And Nixon was the surprise in the group, having just spent the previous 19 minutes, 57.6 seconds on the bench. After a poor start in the first half, Nixon had been reduced to spectator status for the second period.

"I came out tonight real sluggish," Nixon said. "I agreed with him (Reid)."

Once UTEP coach Don Haskins saw the Cougar lineup, he called a timeout and devised his own strategy. When the same BYU squad returned, 5-foot-10 Call was the in-bounds man, fronted by 6-9 David Van Dyke. Reid didn't like it. He called another timeout and changed plans again.

For the play that won the game, Nixon wasn't even the first option. Santiago first tried to draw a foul, taking a charge from Van Dyke as Call ran along the baseline, but when Santiago hit the floor and there was no whistle, Call looked for the open man. There was Nixon, on the right side, about 15 feet from the baseline.

Call fired the pass, Nixon dribbled a couple of times and let go, right in front of leaping Miner guard Eddie Rivera. The shot arced high then dropped through the rim, barely rippling the net.

And everyone went nuts. BYU players whooped, UTEP players shook their heads in disbelief, even the vehemently anti-BYU crowd roared.

Just like that, BYU (25-6) became WAC champs (the first Cougar team to win a regular-season and tourney title the same year), and earned an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, which begins Thursday.

"I knew it had a chance to go in, I had an idea it would be near the basket," Nixon said. When, exactly, did he know it was good? "When I heard the snip."

Asked if he'd practiced those shots, Nixon looked at Reid and said, "I try to shoot them every once in a while . . . " Then Reid interrupted, saying, "He shoots them before the coach gets in the gym."

"And after he leaves," Nixon added. "I've made six or seven of those in a row. But if you ask me, it was probably luck."

For much of the game, it appeared BYU would have no chance to take a last-second shot that meant anything. The Cougars started decently, pounding the ball inside successfully to Gary Trost and Jared Miller, but then they got away from that. The result was a stretch of nearly six minutes without a field goal, at the end of which UTEP was ahead 28-21, shortly thereafter followed by a 51/2-minute stretch without a field goal.

The Miners led by 11 at halftime, 42-31, and the big difference was the UTEP guards. The Miner trio of Rivera, Prince Stewart and Gym Bice combined to score 21 first-half points on 8 of 15 from the field; BYU's guards scored six on 1 of 7.

For the first six minutes of the second half, BYU could make up no ground. Every time they'd score, UTEP would score. Until Miller took over. The Cougars' bruising forward, who played a remarkable (for him) 31 minutes before fouling out, scored eight of BYU's 10 points at the midway point of the period, bringing BYU to within five. It was all the encouragement they needed.

"They turned it over a couple of times and gave us a glimpse of coming back," Trost said.

The lead stayed in the five- to seven-point range for six minutes, until a free throw by Sanderson and 3-pointer by Call suddenly made it a one-point ballgame with 3:18 remaining. The Miners built the lead to four, but Trost and Larson each hit two free throws to tie it - for the first time all night.

Two Maxey free throws put UTEP ahead again, but Heslop nailed a three to put BYU in front - for the first time - with 31 seconds left. That led to Maxey's layup, which led to Nixon's shot, which led to, well, you know.

Three Cougars finished in double figures - Miller and Trost, with 17 each, and Heslop with 12. The top Miner scorers were Rivera, with 18; Ralph Davis, 14; Maxey, 12; and Stewart, 11.

Rivera won the tournament MVP award for his efforts, though he didn't seem too excited about it. Others on the all-tourney team were Trost, Stewart, New Mexico's Willie Banks and Wyoming's Reggie Slater, who played one game and should have been replaced by Utah's Byron Wilson. Strangely enough, none of the media types who vote for this team could remember putting Slater on their ballots.

Reid was understandably elated about the win, but also said he felt sorry for the Miners. "They didn't deserve to lose that game," he said. "We saw a couple of Top 20 teams in there tonight, I don't care what anybody says."