Las Vegas • Cal State Bakersfield’s rally made Utah Valley forward Zach Nelson remember what happened last March, when losing a late lead in regulation forced the Wolverines to endure a four-overtime defeat in the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament.
This time, UVU regrouped sufficiently to finish the job in 40 minutes. A clutch 3-pointer from junior guard Conner Toolson enabled the No. 2-seeded Wolverines to regain control for good Thursday afternoon in an 81-74 quarterfinal victory at Orleans Arena.
“I was having little flashbacks,” said Nelson, a senior reserve who posted nine points and a season-high 10 rebounds. But “we’re a new team, we’ve learned from our mistakes and we weren’t going to let that happen again.”
In Friday night’s semifinals (7 p.m. MST), UVU will meet No. 3 Grand Canyon, a 77-74 winner over Missouri-Kansas City.
UVU coach Mark Pope joked that he asked WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd to adjust the pairings so his team wouldn’t have to face Bakersfield again this year in Las Vegas. The Wolverines rewrote the ending, though, after the Roadrunners made them agonize repeatedly. In last year’s semifinals, Bakersfield came from eight points behind in the final 2:40 of regulation.
Having led by 15 points late in the first half, UVU allowed the Roadrunners to get within two points midway through the second half as guard Damiyune Durham (29 points) led Bakersfield’s surge. Later, after Toolson’s two 3-pointers helped UVU rebuild an 11-point lead, the Roadrunners got within 64-60 in the last three minutes.
That’s when Toolson hit another 3-pointer from the right corner, with an assist from Ben Nakwaasah. “Honestly, before I caught the ball, I knew it was going up,” Toolson said. “Sometimes that’s good; sometimes it’s bad.”
Pope interjected, “It’s almost always good.”
Toolson finished with 18 points, complementing the 19 points of Jake Toolson, his second cousin.
UVU got 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots from 7-foot center Akolda Manyang, who played 20 minutes in his first start in four weeks. Manyang had come off the bench since missing a Feb. 15 win over WAC regular-season champion New Mexico State. He was arrested on an outstanding warrant that day, according to court records, stemming from his being cited with disorderly conduct and interrupting a communication device following an Aug. 21, 2017 fight during a basketball game at the Wolverine Crossing apartments in Orem. He failed to appear for an arraignment hearing in September.
Manyang’s troubled past included legal issues in high school in Minnesota and in college, resulting in his dismissal from Oklahoma’s program. He transferred to UVU and became eligible to play this season as a senior.
Speaking generally about transfers, Pope has said, “We have a lot of people at this university who are second-chance people, in all different walks of life.”
Asked after Thursday’s game about Manyang’s status this season, Pope said, “He has a really tenuous, difficult history, and he’s trying to figure things out. He’s trying to grow. … But it’s not clean and it’s not easy. It’s usually really messy, it’s frustrating and it takes longer than anybody wants it to. … It’s a day-to-day deal.”