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Thorn leads BYU past Rebels

LAS VEGAS — Returning to the Thomas & Mack Center court where she earned 2002 tournament MVP honors, BYU senior guard Erin Thorn added another chapter to her storied career with a 34-point performance and a heroic 3-pointer to lead the Cougars to a 66-64 overtime victory over UNLV in Wednesday's quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference Women's Basketball Championships.

"Great players make great plays," said BYU head coach Jeff Judkins, "and I'm a great coach because of a fading 3-pointer."

With BYU down 64-63 in the closing seconds of overtime, Kestlee Nelson's 3-point attempt bounced long off the rim. Danielle Cheesman rose above a crowded lane to tip the ball into the backcourt, where Thorn snagged the ball and launched her game-winning trey from the top of the arc with 2.8 seconds left. UNLV failed on a desperation heave.

"I was just lucky," said Thorn, "and Danielle wants the assist."

The two players teamed for more than the last touches on the final play. Besides Thorn's 34, Cheesman added 20 points. In fact, the Cougars duo accounted for all but 12 of BYU's points, with four teammates contributing three points each.

After a six-point first half, Thorn finishing with 10-of-22 shooting, 12-of-13 from the line but only 2-of-8 from behind the arc — with both treys in OT. Cheesman's 20 points came on 8-of-15 shooting; she added a team-high nine rebounds.

With the win, BYU advances to Friday's semifinal against instate rival and tournament top seed Utah, which opened by routing Air Force. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. MST.

Wednesday BYU-UNLV pairing featured two near-identical teams coming in as the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds — both were 17-10 overall, went 8-6 in league play, split the two-game regular-season series and took the tournament rubber match into OT.

"You lose and you're out," said Thorn of the frenzied fight to the finish. "I think both teams recognized that."

BYU only led once in the first half, when a runner by Jen Overdiek gave the Cougars an 11-8 lead five minutes into the game. Six minutes later, the Rebels posted their first of several six-point leads, and only a Thorn baseline jumper just seconds before intermission allowed BYU to pull within four at 30-26.

For Judkins and the Cougars, that margin seemed miniscule compared to some of the deficits BYU has faced of late. "That was the first time in a month where we haven't been down 18 to 20 points at the half," Judkins said.

In the second half, BYU tied the score at 32-all and 34-all in the first minutes, then after falling behind by five. A 6-0 run — including a four-point play by Thorn on two technical free throws and another baseline jumper — gave BYU a 40-39 lead with 10:55 remaining.

From there, it was nip-and-tuck and back-and-forth to the end, with no lead greater than three points. With BYU trailing 52-51 in the final 31.8 seconds of regulation, Nelson drained a 3-pointer from the left corner for a 54-52 Cougar lead, Sherry McCracklin sank two free throws at 17.4 seconds to knot the score at 54, and Nelson was whistled for traveling on the BYU baseline with 5.2 seconds to play.

Halfway through the five-minute overtime, BYU edged to a five-point lead before the Rebels rallied with a 6-0 spurt — concluded with two more McCracklin free throws — for a 64-63 advantage with 55 seconds to play.

The first Cougars' first chance failed as Lisa Hansen was bullied into a miss underneath with 40 seconds to play, but BYU got a second chance on a steal with 20 seconds left.

As the clock ticked down, Nelson missed the trey, with Cheesman tapping the long rebound out to Thorn for her game-winner.

"It was my assist," teased Cheesman, admitting her intent to knock the rebound away from opponents and to a teammate. "Actually, I had no idea what was going on."

McCracklin led the Rebels with 24 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, helping lead UNLV to a 34-24 advantage in points scored in the paint. Teammate Constance Jinks added 10 points but shot 4-of-17 from the floor.


E-mail: taylor@desnews.com