LAS VEGAS — For the second straight year, Utah Valley is moving on to the WAC men's basketball tournament semifinals.
The Wolverines beat the team that knocked them out of last year's tournament, CSU Bakersfield, by grinding out an 81-74 victory in the WAC tournament quarterfinals at Orleans Arena on Thursday.
With the win, No. 2 seed UVU (22-9) moves on to face third seed Grand Canyon (21-10) on Friday at 7 p.m. MST (ESPN3). The Lopes beat UMKC 77-74 in the quarterfinals.
“My guys stepped up. They were relentless,” UVU coach Mark Pope said.
While CSU Bakersfield (12-18) has gone through a tough season, Pope knew not to take the Roadrunners lightly, even though his Wolverines had beaten Bakersfield twice this year by an average of 28 points. The Roadrunners won the conference tournament two years ago, earning their first NCAA Tournament appearance, and made the WAC tournament final last year by beating UVU 81-80 in a quadruple overtime game in the semifinals.
On Thursday, after building a double-digit first-half lead, the Wolverines endured a Roadrunners run that cut the UVU lead to 48-46 in the second half.
Behind the sharp shooting of Conner Toolson, though, the Wolverines advanced, as Toolson hit four 3-pointers and scored 18 points. He hit two crucial 3s after the Roadrunners made it a one-possession game, then drilled another 3-pointer to make it a 67-60 game with just under three minutes to play.
“It was a huge shot. Before I even caught the ball, I knew it was going in. That happens to me — sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s good,” Toolson said.
From there, the Wolverines fended off every Bakersfield rally attempt.
Jake Toolson — who had 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists and a steal — led a balanced scoring attack for the Wolverines, as seven players scored six points or more. Akolda Manyang added 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
“I think it’s all in our name,” Conner Toolson joked about the day he and his cousin Jake had. “We like to motivate each other and get each other going. We know if we are going, then the rest of the team is going to get going.”
UVU's bench came up big as well, as the Wolverines' bench outscored the Roadrunners' 20-10. Zach Nelson added nine points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Nelson scored six straight points during a 19-4 run during the first half that helped the Wolverines build a 38-23 lead.
“Sports help you grow up into extraordinary people. It doesn’t take an extraordinary human being to perform great on the floor, but it does to lift up your teammates and then to have this kind of game in the WAC tournament. I couldn’t be more proud of Zach Nelson,” Pope said of his senior.
Ben Nakwaasah also came off the bench and provided a first-half scoring lift, hitting three 3-pointers before halftime while adding three assists.
The team effort helped UVU overcame a big game for CSU Bakersfield's Damiyne Durham, who scored a game-high 29 points on 12 of 22 shooting and on numerous occasions came up with big shots to keep Bakersfield within striking distance.
The Wolverines outrebounded the Roadrunners 39-27 and also outshot them, 47.2 percent to 46 percent, though UVU cooled off in the second half after shooting 61.5 percent in the opening 20 minutes. UVU also had 20 assists, led by seven from senior Brandon Randolph, to 12 for Bakersfield.
After CSU Bakersfield took an early edge in the game, UVU looked like it was headed to a blowout win by using a 19-4 run to break the game open after a 19-all tie. During that stretch, Nelson scored six straight points and Jake Toolson came up with back-to-back buckets to help spur the run.
"My guys stepped up and were incredibly tough and relentless, and we're excited to advance one more round in this tournament," Pope said.