Utah Valley has this CBI thing figured out.
The Wolverines were playing in their third consecutive College Basketball Invitational on Tuesday and for the third straight season came up with home victory in the opener.
What was the formula?
“Genius coaching,” UVU coach Mark Pope deadpanned. “No, it’s so hard but this team found a way to ring the bell every game this year. We haven’t kicked a game to the curb. Everybody in our program is wrapped up in this idea of us growing. In think that’s how we feel. We excited about going places we’ve never gone before. We’ve never had 24 (wins) before and we’ve never gone to 25. Now we can see if we can go to 26. That was just enough to carry us through the first round.”
It was a bit of a slog, though, as Utah Valley and CS-Northridge combined for 28 fouls and 43 free throws in the second half. The Wolverines twice led by 12 points – once in each half – but the Matadors battled back each time. Finally, UVU put the game away to get the 92-84 win by executing down the stretch and making free throws.
“There was nothing pretty about it except the score at the end and the W,” Pope said.
Jake Toolson, who scored just 14 points in two WAC Tournament games last week, led UVU (25-9) with 21 points. Bailey Steele contributed a career-best 19 points and 16 rebounds – 15 points and 11 boards in the first half.
“I was on the floor and I was going to play hard,” Steele said. “You’ll never find me not playing hard. Obviously we didn’t reach our goal of getting to the NCAA’s or winning a conference championship. We had all that anger built up and decided to take it out on these guys.”
Isaiah White and Richard Harward both scored 15 points for the Wolverines, which outrebounded the visitors 49-34 to overcome 20 turnovers.
Redshirt freshman Lamine Diane led Northridge (13-21) – one of the youngest teams in the country with nine freshmen and redshirt freshmen -- with 27 points and Terrell Gomez added 22, 15 in the second half.
Northridge took the early lead as Diane made six of his first eight shots. The Matadors led 20-14 before Utah Valley woke up. A 7-0 run, with White making a 3-pointer and a dunk, pushed the home team to a 23-22 lead with 11:36 to play in the half. Steele dominated inside for UVU and scored nine points in the final four minutes, helping his team to a 44-32 lead. But Northridge scored the final eight points of the half and the Wolverines held a 44-40 advantage at the break.
Utah Valley again built a 12-point lead in the second half, going up 71-59 on a Jake Toolson 3-pointer at the 10:26 mark. But the scrappy Northridge team closed to within three, 76-73 with 5:41 remaining and stayed there as the game came down the stretch. The Wolverines made six consecutive free throws in the final 1:25 to hold on for the win.
Utah Valley will play the South Florida-Stony Brook winner on March 25 in the CBI quarterfinals. Pope said he and his team are committed to surviving and advancing CBI-style.
“If we win a CBI championship, I’m going to get the biggest banner ever made, too big to fit in the UCCU Center,” Pope said. “I might drape it over the top and have it hanging down on both sides.”