LAS VEGAS — All it took to stick BYU with a loss in the Mountain West Conference Men's Basketball Championships was a half-Nelson.
Called by his coach "the best third-team all-conference player and the best cripple," Matt Nelson scored 28 points to lead sixth-seeded Colorado State to an 86-80 overtime upset over BYU in Friday's MWC tournament semifinals at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Despite 22 points from Travis Hansen and contributions of 21 points from Mark Bigelow and 14 points and 10 rebounds from Rafael Arajuo, Friday night's defeat eliminates the Cougars (23-8) from the tournament. However, BYU coach Steve Cleveland expects his team to continue its postseason with an NCAA Tournament invite.
"Everybody comes here to win this tournament, but we have an opportunity to continue to play," said Cleveland, adding "I feel good about it" when asked about BYU's chances for an at-large invitation.
Besides citing the Cougars' RPI score in the teens, their 23 victories and their shared regular-season MWC championship, Cleveland pointed out a challenging nonconference schedule that included three BYU opponents — Creighton, Weber State and San Diego — that already have won conference tournaments.
Add to that group Colorado State (18-13), which advances to tonight's MWC tournament finale against the winner of Friday night's late Utah-UNLV semifinal.
But that's looking ahead to Selection Sunday, and Cleveland and the Cougars will spend much of this weekend licking their wounds and wondering "what if." And they won't have to look far past Nelson and a key nine-minute stretch to start the second half.
"We didn't seem to have an answer for Matt Nelson tonight," Cleveland admitted.
And that's with the Rams' 7-footer hobbled for a month and a half with a right knee sprain, unable to practice and needing a pre-game anti-inflammatory shot just to play.
"Tonight was not his best game of the season," bemoaned CSU coach Dale Layer. "We're still getting used to Matt playing at this level."
Both player and coach made post-game reference to Nelson's third-team selection on the all-conference team announced earlier this week. Nelson confirmed that he considered it a snub at the expense of the likes of Wyoming's Uche Nsonwu-Amadi and BYU's Araujo, two peers he has helped send packing this week with tournament losses.
"I'm showing what I can do . . . they're both going home, and I'm still here," he said.
Meanwhile, both Cleveland and Layer conceded a nine-minute Cougar drought to start the second half was key to the Rams' comeback from deficits of 14 points in the first half and 10 points at intermission.
"I haven't had an experience like that," Cleveland said. "It was one of those odd things were we couldn't hit a basketball."
Added Layer: "It all revolved around our defensive effort at the beginning of the second half."
The Cougars seemed on cruise control in the first half, en route to a 14-point lead at 38-24 with under three minutes to play and a 39-29 halftime advantage. BYU appeared to be clicking on at least four cylinders, as Hansen scored 11 points, Bigelow nine and Araujo and Kevin Woodberry seven each.
Highlights included a three-possession stretch where a Woodberry steal and feed led to a Hansen fast-break dunk, a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass on the baseline gave Woodberry a lay-in underneath, and an Araujo shovel pass assisted Bigelow on a drive.
Then came the second half, as the Cougars went cold and the Rams saw their comeback opportunity. Behind Nelson, Brian Greene and Andy Birley (the latter finishing with 20 and 15 points, respectively), CSU scored the first 16 points of the half, as BYU went 0-for-13 from the floor and without a single point in nearly nine minutes.
"I think we just got comfortable, and we came out and got lethargic," said Hansen, searching for reason for the Cougar dry spell.
BYU slowly whittled away at the six-point deficit midway in the half, eventually regaining the lead at 55-53 on a Bigelow 3-point bomb from well beyond the top of the arc with six minutes remaining.
The two teams battled back and forth from there, never more than two points apart through regulation, which ended at 67-all.
The trading punch for punch continued through the five-minute overtime — both teams missed a pair of free throws in the first 90 seconds, and both scored on every possession.
CSU took command on a trey by freshman Micheal Morris and two free throws by Greene, given when he was fouled by Hansen after stripping the BYU guard of the ball on a baseline drive. That gave CSU a 78-73 lead with 1:21 to play.
Both teams continued to score on their possessions — with the Rams maintaining the lead — until the Cougars missed again with nine seconds to play and settled for the six-point loss.
NOTES: The loss was BYU's first in 19 games when leading at the half . . . Cougar reserve frontliner Jake Shoff reinjured his back early in the first half. Cleveland expects the junior to get another epidural shot for his herniated disk to help him be ready for the NCAAs . . . In Shoff's absence, Dan Howard contributed two dunks and five key rebounds in a nine-minute appearance . . . Luiz Lemes played considerable minutes for the second straight game, finishing with nine points in 25 minutes . . . BYU shot 43.5 percent, compared to CSU's 54.9. The Rams hit 62.5 percent in the second half.