For just over one half of the basketball game against Grand Canyon on Thursday night at the UCCU Center, the UVU men’s basketball team appeared in danger of being on the wrong side of the well-known fable, the Tortoise and the Hare.
The Wolverines had started the game on fire, knocking down five 3-pointers on their way to a quick 24-10 lead.
But the Antelopes had slowly, steadily closed the gap by slowing the tempo and getting good looks.
Early in the second half, Grand Canyon took its first lead since the opening basket of the game when Antelope sophomore center Alessandro Lever drained a 3-pointer to put the visitors ahead 44-43.
But UVU was determined not get caught napping and let Grand Canyon steal the win. Instead, the Wolverines went on a 13-2 run and never looked back, rolling to the impressive 82-70 win over the Antelopes.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys,” UVU head coach Mark Pope said. “This Grand Canyon team has been a real problem for us and it will continue to be a real problem for us. But we played together as a team and guys made plays for each other.”
When asked whether he would call Thursday’s showing the best performance of the season, he said it was up there because of the opponent. Coming into the game, the Antelopes had a 9-4 lead in the series against the Wolverines including winning seven of the last eight contests.
“They are really good,” Pope said. “They are a problem at every single position and they have had our number.”
UVU junior forward Jake Toolson said when Grand Canyon pulled briefly in front, UVU didn’t let it distract them.
“We just keep rolling with the punches,” Toolson said. “We don’t get too high or too low. They came out strong but we respond every single time. The key is to have the ‘next-play’ mentality. You can control your effort and be better.”
Pope said those moments are when experienced guys keep the team locked in on what they need to be doing.
“It’s so important,” Pope said. “You battle through seasons every year. We’ve had some struggles in our locker room earlier this season, but this group is finding a way to do this for each other. They trust each other more than average.”
Jake Toolson led the way with 19 points for the Wolverines, while senior guard Conner Toolson added 18 points, and sophomore center Richard Harward added 14 points and eight rebounds.
“Now I’ve been able to play in a couple of games and I know where I fit,” Harward said. “The team is working together, so it’s a lot easier to know when to make a move and when to kick it out.”
One of the big reasons UVU was able to get the win, according to Pope, was the effort to get rebounds.
“They’ve just crushed us on the glass every time we meet them, it seems,” Pope said. “I was really proud of our guys for handling that point of emphasis really, really well tonight.”
The Wolverines outrebounded Grand Canyon, 35-30, and held the Antelopes to just six second-chance points.
“It was a huge emphasis because when we played them earlier in the season they had a lot of offensive rebounds,” Harward said. “Coach said that what was going to win this game was rebounds and transition offense. It came down to physicality and effort.”
For all the good things that happened, it wasn’t a perfect showing for the home team.
UVU had 21 turnovers (14 in the first half) and Pope said the problem when his team lost the early lead was the team wasn’t playing their style of basketball.
“I would love to get a big lead and just walk away with the game, but against good teams it just doesn’t happen very much,” Pope said. “More than the scoreboard, I was concerned with the way the game felt. It just became like molasses. It felt like our game wasn’t right.”
The Wolverines got things back together and excelled down the stretch.
With the win, UVU picked up its 22nd win on the year and secured second place in the WAC.
“I don’t know where we were picked in the league and no one thought we would win 20 games, but the great thing about this team is that it doesn’t matter what others are saying,” Jake Toolson said. “They aren’t the ones doing it; we are. We are in a good spot right now and we’re playing great ball. We’re hungry and we want more.”
The Wolverines now get ready for their final regular season game as they will host Bakersfield at the UCCU Center at 7 p.m. Saturday.