Isiah Williams looked like a man given new life. His face, subdued and semi-emotional after Friday’s Great West Conference semifinal loss to NJIT, was trying hard not to smile outright less than two days later.
Extending your college career by one game will do that.
Williams and the UVU Wolverines earned a berth in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT), sources told the Daily Herald, Sunday afternoon. The invitation was confirmed when the CIT bracket was released later that evening.
The Wolverines (20-12, 9-2 GWC) will face in-state foe Weber State in the first round, with the 24-6 Wildcats hosting the game in the Dee Events Center on Tuesday at 7p.m. Weber St. is coming off a loss to Montana in the Big Sky championship game, and they have not played Utah Valley in the three years the Wolverines have been a fully credentialed NCAA program.
The game will mark UVU head coach Dick Hunsaker’s return to his alma mater, where he played college basketball in the 1970s. Hunsaker’s son, Holton, is a sophomore starter at guard for the Wolverines.
Williams, however, was not thinking of context or significance upon hearing the news. Instead, the 2011 All-America Honorable Mention was simply overjoyed to hear he would play at least one more NCAA game.
“I can’t believe we got in, man,” Williams said.
Neither did UVU director of athletics Michael Jacobsen, who as late as Saturday night was bemoaning the Wolverines’ lost opportunity at a national postseason berth. They entered the Great West Conference Tournament with a 20-11 record, which included a 13-game winning streak that was the third-longest in the nation before losing to North Dakota in the regular season finale.
The only team above .500 entering the tournament, UVU was heavily favored to win and lock up at least a CIT berth in the process. Instead, the fell in their first game of the tournament for the third straight year. Williams and Hunsaker combined for 46 points, but needed 43 shots to do it as NJIT focused on shutting down post players Geddes Robinson (10.6 points, 10.2 rebounds per game) and Ben Aird.
“There was a lot of hope. We would have been hosting [in the first round], I think, if we had one this tournament, which would have been really exciting for us,” Jacobsen said after the loss. “With the situation now, we won’t be playing. There was a lot of excitement, preparation and anticipation that that could happen.”
UVU’s regular season performance, including twenty wins and a 13-game winning streak that was the nation's third longest run at the time, appeared to be enough to overcome the Wolverines' third consecutive early exit in the GWC tournament. The streak also included back-to-back wins over Seattle University, the program chosen over UVU for an invite to the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) last summer.
Other non-conference NCAA program wins included Portland State (Big Sky), UMKC (Summit), Grambling State (SWAC) and Northern Illinois (Mid-American).
Notable losses included defeats to Arkansas (SEC), Montana (Big Sky), Oakland (Summit), Wyoming twice and Utah State.
Weber State may pose a bigger challenge than any of UVU’s previous opponents. The Wildcats finished with an overall record of 24-6 after losing to Montana in the Big Sky tournament championship game. Junior guard Damian Lillard is second in the nation in scoring with an average of 24.5 points per game.
Matt Petersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @TheMattPetersen.