The six-seed Wildcats live to see another day in the Western Athletic Conference tournament in Las Vegas as they sealed a 82-74 win over the seven-seed Utah Valley Wolverines.
At halftime, the Wildcats were down 41-37 but roared back with a 45-33 second half win to take the second round win. Head coach Brette Tanner and the Wildcats’ defense scored 24 points off of 21 turnovers. Tanner’s offense shot over 50 percent from the field and three-point line against the Wolverines. It was the first time since the four point win over Chicago State on Feb. 2 that the offense shot over 50 percent on the field. However the 52 percent three-point shooting was the best mark from beyond the arc all season.
“The one thing that’s unique about us with the exception of one or two is that every game is a one or two possession game,” Tanner said. “We’ve had that experience so our guys aren’t panicking in a one or two possession game. If we’re down by three with five minutes to go, we’re going to win the game, that’s their mindset.”
A nail-biting first half saw the Wolverines take a 41-37 lead. The Wildcats shot 56 percent from the field while the Wolverines shot 60 percent from the field. Tanner’s defense had a hard time scoring points off turnovers only scoring eight off of ten turnovers. Senior guard and forward Tobias Cameron led with 11.
“I thought in the first half we were a little more timid. In the second half we got out there and started scoring off our defense,” Tanner said. “That’s ACU basketball and that’s what we do.”
Wildcats were neck and neck with the Wolverines until an 11 point tear in three minutes from junior forward Airion Simmons that saw the Wildcats take a 75-69 lead with 2:36 left. The Wildcats continued to extend their lead as they took home the eight point win.
“I was doubting myself at halftime but the team was hyping me up and telling me to keep playing, so that’s what I did,” Simmons said. “I went out there and made big shots.”
The Wolverines won the WAC regular season title last year and defeated the tenth-seeded Chicago State Cougars in the opening round 69-47. Prior to the matchup, Wolverines junior guard Trey Woodbury received clearance coming off his injury to play his first matchup of the season against the Wildcats. Tanner said he and his staff had no idea the former UVU starter would be playing. He finished the night with 10 points for the Wolverines, but leading the way was redshirt sophomore Fardaws Aimaq with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
“They did what they do, they forced us into too many turnovers,” Utah Valley head coach Mark Madsen said. “That was something we were improving but was an achilles heel for us early in the season. You have to give them a lot of credit, they did a great job.”
The quarterfinals bound Wildcats now take on the three-seed Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks for the third time this season. In the last showdown between the rivals, the Lumberjacks walked away with a 73-71 win in Nacogdoches. The Lumberjacks are yet to play in the WAC tournament having secured the three-seed.
“We’ve had some knockdowns, drag out, and street fights with these guys,” Tanner said. “It’s been that way for years. I wouldn’t expect anything different tomorrow. We believe we can beat anybody in this tournament.”
The foes will tip off against each other for the first time in postseason at 8:30 pacific and 10:30 central at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. and will be streamed live on ESPN+.