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LAS VEGAS — Utah Valley’s women’s basketball team has played with as few as six players for most of the season, but the eight-win Wolverines who won just three Western Athletic Conference games were within one half of the program’s first-ever trip to the WAC championship final.
Even while playing just seven players in Friday's WAC semifinal, the Wolverines had a chance until the final minute.
Seattle’s Kaylee Best scored 16 of her game-high 18 points in the second half, including a pair of game-winning free throws with nine seconds remaining, to help the Redhawks stiffarm the shorthanded Wolverines 61-60 in the WAC semifinals Friday afternoon at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
“I realized that we could be in the championship game,” said Best, who got 19 points and 15 rebounds from fellow senior Wilma Afunugo. “Wilma and I had been in this exact spot three years ago, and as seniors, we knew what it takes. We wanted to know what it’s like to be in the championship game now.”
Britta Hall led Utah Valley (8-22) with 17 points, including a game-high five 3-pointers. The sophomore who set a freshman scoring record at San Jose State with 43 treys gave Utah Valley a chance to win it when she hit two free throws with 21 seconds left, but the Redhawks rallied to eke out the win.
“I kept telling myself that I could do it," said Hall, who transferred to Utah Valley after an 18-month mission for the LDS Church in Chile. "Unfortunately, I didn’t make the third one.
"Hopefully when it happens again, I’ll be able to make it go down.
Sam Lubcke added 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocks for the Wolverines, and Taylor Gordon supplied 11 points and nine rebounds.
Hall drained a pair of threes to lead the Wolverines to a 15-11 lead after the first quarter. Mariah Seals scored three of her 11 points and five assists to start a 7-2 run just over a minute into the second quarter that put Utah Valley ahead 22-15 before en route to a 30-26 halftime lead.
“My teammates found me today, and I feel like we really played together as one,” said Hall, who drained 35 3-pointers despite missing time with a broken wrist. “My teammates fed me when I was shooting the ball well.
“I’m still sad about the outcome.”
The Wolverines have played with a shortened bench for most of WAC play, and Friday’s semifinal saw only three players dressed on the bench and two enter the game as Utah Valley has battled a rash of injuries and illnesses in 2016-17.
Still, the Wolverines claimed the No. 6 seed for the conference tournament in Las Vegas, and advanced to Friday’s semifinals with a 59-53 overtime victory Thursday over Cal State Bakersfield.
It doesn’t make the final result, or the eight-win season any easier. But Seals said it will fuel her offseason after being one of just two returners and stepping into a leadership role as a junior point guard.
“We didn’t get the results we wanted, so we’ll go back, watch film and do what we need to do to figure out our mistakes,” Seals said. “We’ll get those little things fixed that may have helped us win the game.”
The season hasn’t been without its merits, either.
“This has been a unique year for me; in 22 years as a coach, I’ve never played games with six people. Today we played seven,” Utah Valley coach Cathy Nixon said. “This team has been amazingly resilient.
“These girls have handled adversity in an incredible way. It’s not about basketball; it’s about life. They are people that I love.”
Best had four treys in the third quarter for Seattle, but Hall matched the frenetic scoring with her fifth triple of the game to help the Wolverines take a 46-45 lead into the final period. That’s when the Wolverines’ lack of depth began to show, and the Redhawks’ own preseason battle with close games (they lost 10 non-conference games by two points or less) also took control.
“They were hard lessons learned,” Seattle coach Suzy Barcomb said. “We lost quite a few close games early on, and those were really, really difficult to swallow. Teams can shy away from that or they can step up.”
Seattle opened the fourth quarter with a 9-2 spurt, capped by Ashlyn Lewey’s 3-pointer to put the No. 3 seed on top 53-48 with 7:48 left in the game. Lubcke pulled the Wolverines within one with four-straight points, then forced a crucial jump ball that led to Taylor Gordon’s lob and a 58-57 lead with 1:37 left.
But the clock finally ran out on Utah Valley’s last-ditch postseason run.
“One good thing is we don’t have any seniors,” Nixon said. “Normally it’s pretty sad, but I looked around the locker room and didn’t see anyone graduating.
“I feel incredibly optimistic about the future of UVU women’s basketball. These girls have gotten pretty good, and we have a great group of recruits coming in next year.”