LAS VEGAS – A few weeks ago, Utah Valley men’s basketball coach Mark Pope started talking to his team about finding a way to, “ring the bell.”
In other words, finding a way to get done what needs to get done.
Stranded in the Madness of March, trailing an inspired Missouri-Kansas City by nine points in the second half and suffering through a 15-minute stretch with just one basket, the Wolverines were in desperate need of someone to ring the bell.
Introducing Richard Harward, Bell Ringer.
Harward scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds off the bench in Utah Valley’s come-from-behind 71-64 victory against Missouri-Kansas City in the Western Athletic Conference quarterfinals on Thursday. When things were at their worst for the Wolverines at Orleans Arena, Harward was at his best. The 6-foot-11 sophomore scored 13 of his 15 points in the final nine minutes of the game and had the play of the game, an offensive rebound put back with 12.9 seconds to play for a five-point lead.
Four of Harward’s baskets came on offensive rebounds, which was just him following instructions.
“At halftime, Pope was talking about how it just comes down to guts and those energy plays,” Harward said. “When I came in we were down and I realized someone needed to get some energy going. I focused on getting rebounds and that was the point where I knew I had to step up.”
Connor Toolson, who led second-seeded UVU with 21 points, said Harward’s heroics weren’t a surprise.
“Richard does a good job with that, getting offensive rebounds and put backs and ‘and-ones,’” Toolson said. “He got every rebound. I know when he’s in the game we’re going to get the rebound, and that’s huge for us.”
The Wolverines somehow survived despite that long offensive dry spell, managing just one basket during a span that included the last five minutes of the first half and the first ten of the second. Kansas City took advantage by stretching their two-point halftime lead to nine, 49-40, on a Rob Whitfield 3-pointer with 12:16 to play.
“These guys have always, this season, found a way to ring the bell,” Pope said. “Tonight we were in a bad spot. With ten minutes to go in this game, we had no momentum. We couldn’t score, we were really stagnant, we couldn’t get a stop and we were struggling to get rebounds. These guys among themselves started talking about how they had to stay in this fight.
“The way we got out of it is that our players are tough dudes, man. They just found a way to make it work. So much credit goes to our guys.”
The Wolverines finally broke the lid off the basket with a 7-0 run that included a three-point play by Harward, roaring back to within two at 49-47. The Kangaroos, though, kept hitting big shots and led 62-59 with three minutes left.
Jake Toolson scored inside and on the other end Kansas City was called for a flagrant foul. Harward – who air balled his first free throw earlier in the game – made two clutch shots to give the Wolverines a 63-62 lead and they never trailed again.
Harward followed up a missed Ben Nakwaasah shot with a tip for a 65-62 advantage with 2:01 to play and Hayden Schenck dropped in a pair of free throws to make it 67-62 with 1:39 to play.
No. 7 seed Kansas City scored to cut it to three, but that’s when Harward gathered in Connor Toolson’s rushed 3-point attempt to beat the shot clock and scored the clincher.
Utah Valley executed its offense and made shots early in the game, hitting 5 of 7 from the 3-point line to take a 25-16 lead at the 8:39 mark. Connor Toolson’s triple made it 35-26 with 4:47 to play when the Wolverines dropped into a funk and UMKC got some favorable calls on the offensive end. The Kangaroos outscored UVU 11-0 to close out the half, a rebound basket by Jordan Giles giving his team a 37-35 lead the break.
Xavier Bishop paced Kansas City (11-21) with 17 points.
“This is the definition of what March is supposed to be, what tournament play is supposed to be like,” Pope said. “What I mean by that is that these games come down to guts. There’s nothing pretty about them. Both teams were out there slugging it out.”
Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jake Toolson had a tough night for the Wolverines, making just 2 of 9 from the field and 0 of 5 from the 3-point line, finishing with seven points.
Utah Valley (24-8) advances to Friday’s semifinals against the winner of the late quarterfinal between No. 3 seed Grand Canyon and No. 6 seed Seattle U. Tip off for the semifinal game will be at 9:30 p.m. MT