Over a two-month schedule, Utah center Luke Nevill stood out as the best player in the Mountain West Conference. During an intense three days in Las Vegas, he proved it again.
Nevill, a 7-foot-2-inch senior from Australia, had 18 points and 15 rebounds to push the Utes to a 52-50 victory over San Diego State in the MWC tournament championship Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Nevill, voted the tournament Most Valuable Player, produced a big effort in the same week he was named conference Player of the Year.
“It’s a great way to finish my career,” he said. “I’m kind of humbled in the experience that I’m getting all these awards. Through winning, you get awards.”
The second-seeded Utes (24-9) earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament after sharing the regular-season title with Brigham Young and New Mexico.
The fourth-seeded Aztecs (23-9) will find out today if they’ll receive an at-large invitation to the NCAA’s 65-team field.
“We with all our heart believed we would be the team celebrating on the court. When you’re not, it hurts,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “It’s immense disappointment. We competed until the very last possession.”
It was an ugly, grind-it-out defensive battle, but the crowd of 10,307 got to witness a thrilling finish.
Lawrence Borha made the first of two free throws to put Utah ahead by two with 5.7 seconds to play. The Aztecs’ Ryan Amoroso rebounded the miss and passed to point guard Richie Williams, who raced up the court to beat the clock.
But as Williams weaved through Utes defenders, he was caught from behind by Shaun Green and stripped of the ball just before time expired.
Lorrenzo Wade, a senior forward from Cheyenne High School, shot 5-for-16 and scored 12 points to lead San Diego State.
“My shots just weren’t falling down. They were the same shots I was shooting in the past two games,” said Wade, who averaged 22 points and 8.5 rebounds in the Aztecs’ previous tournament victories over Brigham Young and UNLV.
Wade made the all-tournament team with Nevill, Borha, BYU’s Jimmer Fredette and Wyoming’s Brandon Ewing.
Amoroso had 11 points and 15 rebounds. Williams, who scored all eight of his points in the final 26 seconds, hit a high-arcing 3-pointer over Nevill to pull San Diego State within 51-50 with seven seconds left.
Trailing 20-18, the Utes opened the second half with a 10-2 run and led the rest of the way. They won the game at the free-throw line, making 20 of 27 to the Aztecs’ 5 of 8.
Nevill’s powerful display on the court was matched by Utah coach Jim Boylen’s emotional show in the postgame news conference. He broke down and cried when asked to describe what it meant to turn around a team that was losing when he was hired two years ago. He said he was “very hard on Luke,” and that Nevill answered the challenge.
“There were days I didn’t like Luke. There were days he didn’t like me,” Boylen said.
“If you’re a big guy, you’ve got to have your teammates like you. You’ve got to invest in them or you’ll never get the ball, and they won’t play for you. He’s as good a defensive big guy as there is now.”
Utah won its second MWC tournament title, its first since 2004.
UNLV beat BYU to win the past two conference tournaments. The fighting that erupted between fans and arena security after last year’s title game was not a problem during the Utes’ celebration.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.Audio slideshow
SAN DIEGO STATE 50
KEY: Senior center Luke Nevill led the Utes with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
NEXT: Utah, NCAA Tournament; San Diego State, postseason TBA