Orleans Arena in Las Vegas has been a sort of kryptonite for Utah Valley in tournament semifinals.

That was the case again Tuesday night, on the biggest stage yet.

This time, the venue for the annual WAC tournament — where UVU has never advanced past the conference tourney semifinals — was again the site of a heartbreaking loss for the Wolverines, as they fell 88-86 in overtime to UAB in the NIT semifinals.

The loss spoiled an otherwise excellent postseason run for UVU, and it could spell the end of an era — multiple reports indicate that Wolverines coach Mark Madsen is expected to take the vacant head coaching job at California.

On this night, though, the focus was on the players and a valiant effort in a historic season that saw Utah Valley set a program record for wins (28) while also making its first appearance ever in the NIT semifinals — an accomplishment that stands as the highlight of the school’s postseason experience.

“I’m incredibly proud of every man in the locker room, every manager that’s part of our organization,” Madsen told reporters postgame. “This team has great players, players that work. And they just completed the best basketball season in UVU school history so I wanted to celebrate the players and the job they have done.”

The loss came two-and-a-half weeks after UVU, the WAC regular-season champions, lost to Southern Utah in the WAC tournament semifinals, also in heartbreaking fashion. The Wolverines blew a 23-point lead that night, and that loss ended the hope that Utah Valley could make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.

What followed after that loss, though, was an impressive three-game winning streak in the NIT, the first three wins for UVU in the prestigious postseason tournament. That all led to the Wolverines returning to Vegas, with a chance to play for a championship, if they could get past UAB.

The Blazers led for much of the night and countered every UVU run with an answer of their own. On the night, the Wolverines only held a lead for a total of 25 seconds.

The effort was there, though — UVU never trailed by more than 10, and after falling behind by as many as eight early in the second half, the Wolverines forced overtime by relying on their defense to disrupt the Blazers offense.

“I was incredibly happy with the effort and the fight and the determination,” Madsen said.

Turning point in the game

UVU had come back from a five-point deficit in overtime to tie the game with just over a minute to play, but Ty Brewer, as he had done all night, drilled a jumper with 45 seconds left in the extra session to put UAB up two. 

On the ensuing possession, the Blazers forced UVU into a shot clock violation, and UAB sealed the game at the free-throw line.

Star effort for UAB

Brewer, the UAB senior forward, scored a career-high 30 points and added 12 rebounds to pace the Blazers. He shot a blistering 13 of 17 from the field, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range.

“My mentality was really do anything and everything I can, and just go hard doing it, and whatever happens, just happens, and that’s my mentality about it,” Brewer told reporters.

That helped offset a tough shooting night for the Blazers’ leading scorer, Jordan Walker, who scored 17 despite shooting 5 of 23 from the field — he missed two shots on UAB’s final possession in regulation that could have ended the game.

“Ty Brewer, what can you say? He really played big on the biggest stage,” UAB coach Andy Kennedy said.

Star effort for UVU

UVU senior guard Trey Woodbury, playing in his hometown Las Vegas, led the Wolverines with 16 points and 12 rebounds. While he missed all four of his 3-point attempts, Woodbury added a team-high six assists and two steals. He had a chance to win the game on a 70-footer at the buzzer after rebounding a missed free throw, but the shot wasn’t close.

“I’m just proud of the guys, and ... to the buzzer, we thought we could win it. We just continued to fight, so I’m just proud of the guys for that,” he said.

Senior forward Tim Fuller also came up with several big moments, adding 14 points and eight rebounds while shooting 50% from the field, and fellow big man Aziz Bandaogo added a double-double with 14 points and a game-high 16 rebounds.

3 keys to the game

  • UAB started off the contest strong, pushing ahead 11-2 in the contest’s opening minutes while UVU missed its first five shots and had four early turnovers. While the Wolverines were able to get back in the game, UVU only led twice for brief moments each time, once with 8:14 left in regulation and for a few seconds early in the overtime period. UAB simply was the more consistent team throughout the game.
  • The Wolverines had their chance to either tie the game or take the lead on their first possession in the final minute of overtime, but UAB put on the pressure and forced the Wolverines into a forced 3-point attempt from Justin Harmon late in the shot clock. The shot, taken under heavy defensive pressure, was well off the mark and led to a shot-clock violation. That lost possession was costly.
  • In a game where so many things were close, it was the little edges that made the difference. UAB was more efficient at the 3-point line, hitting 7 of 16, while UVU made just 5 of 20. The Blazers also owned an 18-10 edge in points off turnovers — UVU had 15 turnovers to 11 for UAB.

What’s next

UAB will face fellow Conference USA program North Texas in the NIT championship game on Thursday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The game will tip at 7:40 p.m. MDT and be televised on ESPN2.

For Utah Valley, the season is over with the loss.

Despite trailing by 12 points at halftime, North Texas rallied to beat Wisconsin 56-54 in the first NIT semifinal of the night.

North Texas players and coaches celebrate after defeating Wisconsin in an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the NIT, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Las Vegas. | John Locher, Associated Press

The Mean Green, who lead the country in scoring defense (allowing 55.7 points per game), held the Badgers scoreless over the final 9:07, and North Texas went on a 10-0 run to end the game.

The Mean Green held Wisconsin to 24% shooting in the second half, while Tylor Perry scored 16 points and hit a team-high three 3-pointers for North Texas.

A busy time for Mark Madsen

This may be Madsen’s final time coaching the Wolverines after four seasons as Utah Valley’s head coach. Multiple reports, led by the San Francisco Chronicle and CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, indicate he is expected to take over the vacant head coaching position at Pac-12 program California.

Madsen was in Vegas to coach the Wolverines on Tuesday night, after he was absent for team practice and press availability on Monday, with associate head coach Todd Phillips filling in.

There was a good reason for Madsen’s absence: He was with wife Hannah, as the couple is expecting the birth of their fourth child any day now.

Madsen thanked his team for allowing him to be with his family as much as possible during this time, all while the team was experiencing a historic run.

“I kind of made a deal with the guys. I said once she goes overdue, I’m not going to be gone at nights,” Madsen said. “These players have been incredibly understanding. I flew in this morning at 7 a.m. But this is a player-led team. They allowed me to do that and gave me that flexibility. No baby yet but hopefully we’ll have a baby soon.”