The UVU men’s basketball team had to scrap and struggle for every point in an intense home game Thursday night at the UCCU Center against New Mexico State with first place in the Western Athletic Conference on the line.
It took a lucky break at the end of regulation and some key plays in overtime for the Wolverines to get the 66-61 victory over the Aggies, but it was what happened as time expired that unfortunately will probably get the most attention.
With the outcome decided and the final 0.4 second ticking off the clock, New Mexico State junior guard K.C. Ross-Miller grabbed the last Aggie inbounds pass but instead of shooting, he took out his frustration by firing the ball at UVU senior guard Holton Hunsaker.
With the Wolverine students already coming onto the court to celebrate the victory, the action incited both players and fans, resulting in a fluid brawl on the court.
Coaches, security personnel and university staff moved quickly to limit the violence and although there was definitely pushing and shoving, there were no reports of damage or injuries.
After a couple of minutes of melee, order was restored and both teams left the floor.
“It’s too bad it occurred,” UVU head coach Dick Hunsaker said. “It’s sad to see players put themselves in that situation.”
The final seconds of the altercation were captured on Instagram by the Daily Herald, which was requested by both ESPN SportsCenter and CBS Sports Network to be shown to a national audience.
Wolverine senior center Ben Aird, who led UVU with 21 points and played a critical role for his team at both ends of the court, said the post-game actions were “very disappointing.”
“I hated to see the game end that way,” he said. “When you are out there, at first you are like, ‘what’s happening?’ The faculty got out there and although you want to help break it up, they told us that we had to get out of that situation and let them handle it.”
The incident overshadowed an incredible contest in one of the best atmospheres in UVU basketball history.
In a contest in which neither team led by more than nine points, the action revolved around the physical play in the paint.
New Mexico State 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar proved to be a huge factor, altering shots, grabbing rebounds and limiting UVU’s ability to navigate in the paint.
With Aird, who is 6-foot-9, being the tallest player on the Wolverine team, things looked grim when the senior picked up his fourth foul with just under 16 minutes left in the game.
He spent a few minutes on the bench but then returned to the floor. Conscious of his foul situation, he had to be careful in guarding Bhullar and even had to let the big Aggie center dunk the ball right over him on one play.
“I had to let that happen,” Aird said. “It’s hard, especially on defense. I couldn’t get that fifth foul.”
But Aird stayed in the game and scored four late points to cut what was a six-point lead for New Mexico State’s to two with 22 seconds to play.
After the Aggies made one-of-two from the line, UVU had a final chance to tie. The Wolverines got the ball to senior guard Keawe Enos, who used a head fake at the 3-point line to get Bhullar in the air.
Enos then jumped to shoot with Bhullar’s long arm swinging back, drawing contact and earning the whistle. He calmly stepped up and drained his three free throws to tie the game.
NMSU had a chance at the buzzer but it bounced out and the game went to overtime.
On the first play of the extra period, Bhullar got the ball in the post and attacked. His first shot missed but the ball bounced back to him. When the second attempt rimmed out, he lunged for the rebound — right into Aird, drawing an over-the-back call for his fifth foul.
“Credit to New Mexico State because they know how to rebound the ball,” Aird said. “I was just glad I could get the ball, then get the call. That was a big key down the stretch.”
With the Aggie center having fouled out and a second NMSU post player having already been disqualified, the Wolverines were able to get the ball inside and pull away in the extra period to get the win.
“What a game,” Hunsaker said. “It was a battle at both ends of the court, offensively, defensively, on the boards, on the ball. I couldn’t be more pleased or more proud of our effort and how hard we played.”
Aird called the win the biggest of his UVU career.
“It was an incredible game and it feels amazing,” he said. “It is right at the top. We knew coming in that it was a huge game and with the atmosphere like that, it was one of the best.”
The Wolverines now have a one-game lead on New Mexico State in the WAC standings with two more to play. If UVU holds on, it will earn the No. 1 seed in the upcoming WAC tournament in Las Vegas in mid-March.
The Wolverines next face Texas Pan-American at the UCCU Center at 7 p.m. Saturday night.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.