DENVER — The Utah basketball team completed its improbable journey to the NCAA Tournament in thrilling fashion as Nick Jacobson sank a fall-away 3-point basket with 1.8 seconds left to give the Utes a 73-70 victory over UNLV Saturday night at the Pepsi Center.
The victory propelled the Utes into the NCAA Tournament and the Utes will anxiously await their assignment this week when the bids are announced today at 4 p.m.
For UNLV, it was its third straight loss in the MWC championship game. The Rebels were trying to prove they didn't need a homecourt advantage to capture a MWC title, but Jacobson broke their hearts.
"We ran that play a few times and wanted to run it again," said Jacobson. "It was contested, but I got a good look at it and it went in."
"In the last timeout, our whole team was calling for that play, for Nick to get it," said Ute coach Kerry Rupp, who won the battle of the interim coaches against UNLV's Jay Spoonhour. "Nick's the type of guy who likes to take that shot and isn't afraid to take it. He's just an incredible shooter."
Utah won a postseason league championship for the first time since it won the 1999 WAC title in Las Vegas. It had lost in the semifinals in each of the past four years, including twice to the Rebels. But it broke the semifinal whammy Friday night with an upset over BYU, breaking the Cougars' nine-game winning streak and broke the Rebels' hex Saturday night.
"It was a hard ending for us because we had the lead and because we fought so hard to get back into it," said Spoonhour, who took over for his father last month.
The Utes had fought back from a 41-33 halftime deficit to take a seven-point lead, only to see the Rebels come back and tie the game on Odartey Blankson's 3-point shot with 21.3 seconds left.
After a timeout the Utes got the ball upcourt and Tim Drisdom worked the clock down to under 10 seconds. He dribbled to the right, then reversed and found Jacobson coming off a pick on the left side. Jacobson let his shot fly over Demetrius Hunter and fell backwards to the floor as the ball swished through the net.
The Rebels had no timeouts left and Jerel Blassingame didn't come close with his desperation shot and the Utes celebrated. Within a couple of minutes all of the coaches and players were wearing black MWC Champion hats and gray MWC Champion T-Shirts.
Jacobson, who led the Utes with 22 points, was named MVP of the tournament and sophomore Richard Chaney, who scored 18 points, was named to the all-tournament team. Andrew Bogut had one of his best games in awhile, finishing with 17 points and 14 rebounds.
Blankson led UNLV with 23 points, Blassingame scored 22 and James Peters added 11.
The Utes trailed 41-33 at halftime and fell behind by 10 when Blankson scored the first basket of the second half, but the Utes crept back into the game behind Bogut, who scored three inside baskets and Chaney, who hit a pair of long shots.
Chaney's 3-pointer with 12:38 tied the game at 47 and then Frost scored on a 5-footer in the lane to put the Utes up 49-47 at the 12-minute mark. Chaney hit another three and Jacobson got open for a pair of treys and the Utes pushed their lead to seven at 64-57 with 6:58 left.
However, they missed two inside shots and Jacobson misfired on a three and then Blankson hit a pair of threes to make it a one-point game at 64-63. The two teams traded free throws and Tim Drisdom hit a pair of foul shots with 2:32 left to make it 68-65. Blankson scored inside to cut the lead to one with 36 seconds left and after a timeout, the Rebels immediately fouled Bogut, who sank both to make it 70-67.
Chaney kept the Utes in the game early, scoring eight of the Utes' first 10 points as Utah jumped ahead 10-7. But the Utes couldn't contain Blassingame, who torched the Utes for 17 first-half points and scored 12 straight UNLV points from the 13:37 mark to the 8:40 mark.
The Rebels blanketed Jacobson, using three different players on him and limited him to 3-of-7 shooting in the first half.
Utah pulled within two at 30-28 on a steal and a dunk by Chaney, but the Rebels outscored the Utes 11-5 the rest of the way and Blankson's 3-pointer just before the buzzer made it 41-33.
The Utes only shot 33 percent in the opening half on 11 of 33, while the Rebels were 15 of 28 for 54 percent.
MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson, a former chairman of the NCAA Selection Committee, said before the game that the MWC deserved four teams if UNLV won. When asked how to rank the three teams besides UNLV, he said he'd put AFA first, Utah second and BYU third. He based that on Utah's two wins over BYU and the 20-point win over Colorado and a "double-digit" win over Utah State.
However, the Utes didn't want to leave it up to the committee and earned their way in Saturday night.
GAME NOTES: The Utes were coming off a pair of wins that went down to the final minute. They escaped with a 75-69 win over San Diego on Thursday night and edged BYU 54-51 in the Friday semifinals. UNLV had to overcome a 20-point deficit to defeat New Mexico in the first round before beating Colorado State in the semifinals . . . During the regular season, the Utes defeated the Rebels twice, winning 72-67 in Las Vegas and 70-56 in Salt Lake . . . Utah won the rebounding battle 37 to 33 . . . Utah shot just 37 percent from the field, compared to UNLV's 50 percent.