LAS VEGAS – Grand Canyon got ‘em again.
The Utah Valley men’s basketball team was seeking its first trip to the Western Athletic Conference Tournament finals but ran into the Antelopes for the second straight year in the semifinals.
The Wolverines had their chances but couldn’t make the key plays in the game’s final moments, falling 78-74 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Friday.
It was the third straight year Utah Valley bowed out in the semifinals.
“We’re incredibly disappointed,” UVU coach Mark Pope said. “Our guys left their heart and soul on the floor, but we fell just a little bit shy. The guys did a terrific job, but we just didn’t quite get it done.”
Trailing by three with under two minutes to play, the Wolverines got two key defensive stops it desperately needed. But the ensuing two possessions resulted in a turnover and a missed 3-pointer, and Grand Canyon put the game away at the foul line.
“We struggled to get some free ball movement,” Pope said. “Ben (Nakwaasah) did a terrific job for us with the pace of the game, trying to manufacture some offense with the screen and roll. We tried to execute a couple of pitch options (down the stretch) that didn’t pan out for us.”
Washington transfer Carlos Johnson, who scored a career-high 31 points in the quarterfinals, topped that with 35 points for Grand Canyon, including 6 of 8 from the 3-point line.
“He’s a talented player and he’s really feeling it right now,” Pope said. “In the past we were able to contain him a little bit because he wasn’t shooting the ball great, but the last two games he’s 10 of 16 from the 3-point line. He’s explosive and physical and gets to the rim. We just didn’t quite have an answer for him tonight.”
Conner Toolson led the Wolverines with 16 points, followed by Bailey Steele and Richard Harward with 12 each.
WAC Player of the Year Jake Toolson scored seven points for UVU – all in the first half – and was 3 of 11 from the field, including 1 of 7 from the 3-point line.
Johnson had 21 in the first half on Friday, including 15 in the first eight minutes. His third 3-pointer gave Grand Canyon a 17-10 lead with 14:30 to play in the half.
The Antelopes led 24-17 but an 11-0 run, keyed by six points from Steele, got Utah Valley into the lead at 28-24 with 7:57 to play. The big advantage for the Wolverines was six, 39-33, and they settled for a 44-40 lead at the break.
The game feature 11 lead changes and nine ties, mostly in the second half as the two teams battled back and forth. Grand Canyon led by six, 66-60, with just over eight minutes to play. Utah Valley pulled to within one at 73-72 on a Conner Toolson 3-pointer with 3:34 to play, but the Wolverines didn’t score again until Toolson’s rebound in the final second of the game.
Utah Valley (24-9) will now await its post-season fate, which may include the NIT.
“We came up short,” said Toolson, one of three seniors on the team. “This was not the outcome that we all had our goals on this whole season, but you can find good in any situation. I love the guys I’ve been playing with all year. This is my last WAC game and I’m grateful for the time I’ve been able to play with these guys.”
Grand Canyon (20-12) will play No. 1 seed New Mexico State (29-4) in the WAC final. The Aggies held off No. 4 Texas-Rio Grande Valley 79-72 in an earlier semifinal. The WAC Championship Game will be televised at 8 p.m. MT on ESPNU.