UVU men's basketball vs. Grand Canyon 8

UVU head coach Mark Pope directs his team during the game against Grand Canyon at the UCCU Center in Orem on March 7, 2019.

LAS VEGAS – Everybody is chasing New Mexico State in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament.

The Aggies have won seven of the past nine titles and that last two at Orleans Arena. This year, New Mexico State (27-4) lost to WAC newcomer Cal Baptist in the league opener before ticking off 18 straight wins.

Utah Valley finished second in league play to the Aggies, losing twice by five and seven points, respectively, in highly competitive matchups in Orem and Las Cruses.

The Wolverines would love another shot at the champs but first things first: UVU opens the WAC Tournament as the No. 2 seed against Kansas City on Thursday.

“We’ll go to Las Vegas and take our best swing at this thing,” UVU coach Mark Pope said.

The Wolverines are on a nice roll, having won seven straight games since dropping their second game to NMSU. Utah Valley beat Kansas City twice this season, the only WAC team to top the Kangaroos in Kansas City.

The Kangaroos – the No. 4 seed – are 11-20 this season and were 6-10 in conference play. A solid guard line, led by Xavier Bishop (15.3 points per game), Rob Whitfield (11.1) and Brandon McKissic (10.8), will be a challenge for the Wolverines to defend.

On Tuesday, UVU junior guard Jake Toolson was named the WAC Player of the Year. During league play, he ranked third in the WAC in three-point percentage (47.4), free throw percentage (87.3), and three-pointers per game (2.3) while averaging 16.7 points.

He is the only player in the country that has played in 20 games while shooting better than 55 percent from the field (56.1 percent), 45 percent from three-point range (48.5 percent), and 85 percent from the free throw line (86.5 percent).

Last season, a senior-laden UVU team bowed out of the WAC Tournament in the semifinals, losing to Grand Canyon 75-60. With Toolson and his cousin, senior Connor Toolson, as the only returning starters the Wolverines have already posted 23 wins (23-8), tying a school record.

Pope credits his assistants for recruiting players who fit the system and the culture in Orem. Newcomer Wyatt Lowell was named the WAC Freshman of the Year, transfer Baylee Steele and returned missionary Richard Harward have solidified the middle and newcomers Isaiah White and TJ Washington have also contributed.

UVU is 3-5 all-time in the WAC Tournament and is shooting for advancing beyond the semifinals for the first time.

“If Grand Canyon does their job and we do our job, we’re going to meet in the semifinals,” Pope said. “The first round of this WAC tournament is going to be like the wild, wild west because No. 1-7 could all win the tournament because we are so deep. It’s going to take a miracle for us both to get there but they know we are headed that way and we know we are headed that way. If we can get there, it’s going to be a massive game.”

The quarterfinals and semifinals can be streamed on ESPN+ and the WAC Digital Network. The championship game will be broadcast on ESPNU at 8 p.m. MT on Saturday.

WAC WOMEN’S TOURNAMENT

The New Mexico State women are the favorite this year after winning the regular-season title by four games. The Aggies (23-6) claimed three straight tournament titles before Seattle took the crown last season.

Utah Valley (14-15) finished as the No. 5 seed and will play No. 4 seed Kansas City on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. MT. The Wolverines lost both games to the Kangaroos, falling 68-64 in Orem and 97-64 in Kansas City.

Jordan Holland leads UVU in scoring (13.7 points per game) and rebounding (6.3 per game) and Eve Bralis (10.8 ppg) also averages double figures.

Darnell Dickson, who has been covering sports in Utah since 1989 (with a detour to Nebraska for three years somewhere in there), is currently the BYU football columnist and BYU men’s basketball beat writer.

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