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WAC Quarterfinals Recap: UMKC wins in OT, NMSU and UVU advance more easily

NCAA Basketball: UMKC at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The WAC Tournament tipped off in Las Vegas Thursday with an odd-duck, three-game day. CSU Bakersfield got a bye with Grand Canyon waiting out its final season of NCAA-sanctioned ineligibility. Here’s what the rest of the league did:

(4) Utah Valley 63, (5) Seattle 53

The Wolverines continued a recent defensive upswing by stifling Seattle, holding the Redhawks to just 0.75 points per possession. Some of that improvement may be due to physical forward Zach Nelson working himself back into the rotation. The junior missed four games with a leg injury in early February, and played his most minutes (26) on Thursday since returning on Feb. 16.

Nelson (7 points, 8 rebounds), along with seniors Jordan Poydras (15 points) and Ivory Young (11 points), helped send UVU to a third game with No. 1 CSUB. Mark Pope is feeling good about his team, which has now won four straight games.

“We understand they’re a great team and have full confidence we can compete in this game, and are coming to this game to win,” he said in the post-game press conference. “It’s going to be a colossal battle, I kid you not. As good as WAC basketball gets.”

For the Wolverines to have a shot, they’ll need to replicate two things they did against Seattle. They defended without fouling, letting the Redhawks get just eight free throw attempts. This will be much harder against a Roadrunners team that gets to the line at a higher rate than anyone else in the WAC. Cleaning up the offensive glass, which UVU did against Seattle, will also be a big help against a CSUB defense that rarely cracks.

The Roadrunners won both meetings this season, but UVU was able to hang around at the Icardo Center, losing by just three points.

(2) New Mexico State 67, (7) Chicago State 53

Chicago State led for over 16 minutes, which is about 15 minutes more than anyone would’ve expected.

The Cougars were without leading scorer Fred Sims, who was sidelined with an illness. So what hope could they have against a team that hammered them twice? That narrative went out the window quickly, as CSU held NMSU to just 37.5 percent from the field in the first half. This included an early seven-point lead.

The Aggies would battle back to take a 28-25 halftime lead en route to a comfortable win. Ian Baker (15 points 5 assists) and Eli Chuha (12 points, 11 rebounds) led NMSU, and fueled a 39-point second half that took the drama out of the game.

Still, it was a slightly discouraging night for a team trying to regain momentum.

NMSU struggled from three (23.8 percent), which was a theme in their stunning home loss to UVU on Feb. 23. They were also - somewhat inexplicably - outrebounded by a smaller CSU team. NMSU’s semifinal opponent (UMKC) has the offensive firepower to punish the Aggies should they struggle again in those areas.

(3) UMKC 82, (6) UTRGV 78 (OT)

When it mattered most, LaVell Boyd was there to pull UMKC into the semifinals.

The senior struggled through an uncharacteristically rough night filled with missed shots and foul trouble. But after hitting a pivotal three late in regulation, he scored 12 points in overtime as the Roos held off UTRGV in an ugly game.

The teams combined to shoot just 48-for-79 from the free throw line and 35.9 percent from the floor. They also both slogged through long second half scoring droughts that kept the game tight throughout. After a late UMKC push, Lew Stallworth (20 points) hit a deep, contested three after a disjointed possession to send the game to overtime.

Boyd took over from there, but Kyle Steward (19 points, 12 rebounds) and the other three senior starters carried the team in regulation.

It was almost a big missed opportunity for UMKC. The Roos were the biggest beneficiary of GCU’s absence from the tournament, drawing a UTRGV team that had only beaten CSU in league play. This cleared a path to the semifinals, but it gets much trickier from here.

NMSU swept UMKC, winning both games by double digits. If anything points to a different result, it might be time. Both games happened early in the conference season and UMKC has been much better since the second meeting. The Roos have since gone 8-3 and seen Steward turn into a reliable second scorer.

Another team that’s gone 8-3 over that span? NMSU.