LAS VEGAS — It was a moment to celebrate, in many ways, or at least to acknowledge the historical nature of such an accomplishment.
But the Utah Valley women’s basketball team and first-year head coach Dan Nielson wanted none of it.
The Wolverines didn’t want to think about their second-place finish in the Western Athletic Conference regular season, or the accompanying No. 2 seed in the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas that came with it. They barely acknowledged that the two-seed was the highest in women’s program history, at least since joining the WAC.
All they could think about was how they wanted more, how they “kind of backed into the postseason,” and how they could’ve had so much more.
And when UVU tips off Wednesday at 7 p.m. MT against No. 7 Seattle (12-16, 6-9 WAC) in a WAC quarterfinal at Orleans Arena (ESPN+), that will be what motivates them.
“Everyone wants to win a conference championship, but getting that two-seed really was important for us,” Nielson told KSL.com. “It’s the highest finish we’ve ever had at UVU in women’s basketball … and there’s an extra card for us to play. We’re just a little frustrated that we had to back into that spot.
“We’ve beat every team in the conference this year, so we believe we have a chance in every game.”
The WAC men’s basketball tournament will tip off Thursday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. No. 6 seed Utah Valley will face third-seeded Seattle at 9:30 p.m. MT on ESPN+.
For the UVU women, of course, the No. 2 seed comes with its advantages.
It sets up a bracket opposite WAC regular-season champion Kansas City, with three wins separating Utah Valley from its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Win those three, and they are in.
But even if they fall, the Wolverines can clinch an automatic entrance into the WNIT if Kansas City wins the tournament. Should the Roos, who own the league’s autobid to the WNIT, advance into the NCAA women’s tournament, Utah Valley will be the automatic representative in a rare postseason appearance for the program.
It's been a year to remember for the first-year coaching staff — one that started the year losing against its first nine Division I opponents before finishing 12-15 overall — the 9-6 record in WAC play involved a final sprint unlike most in women’s college basketball.
“We changed pretty much everything that they were used to, and every coach has a different style about them, whether it’s intentional or not,” Nielson said. “I’m loud, and very open and honest with my players at all times. I’m sure for them, it was a bit of a shock.
“But I think the biggest thing was that the girls continued to stay positive. They believed in themselves and in their potential — and I think it says the most about my assistant coaches, who the girls are going to be more inclined to go to initially. But the thing I’m most proud about is that, after a really tough start and adjustment, where they could’ve just mailed it in and focused on next year, they kept fighting. Despite our overall record, finishing second in the WAC and having a chance to go to the postseason was earned — and I’m really proud of them for that.”
The Wolverines have made it this far with a roster filled with youth — just three seniors — but also the dynamic presence of senior forward Jordan Holland. The 6-foot New Mexico native started all 25 games of her final campaign, and averaged 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game en route to All-WAC first-team honors.
She did it all with the pressure of senior leadership, both from her teammates and her new coach, too.
“It’s a curse and a blessing, but she’s earned the right to be that player who has that mantle on her,” Nielson said. “We’re going to be as good as she is some nights, and it’s not to put pressure on her — but it’s something she’s earned and she should look at it as a positive.”
How to watch, stream
No. 2 Utah Valley (12-15, 9-6 WAC) vs. No. 7 Seattle (12-16, 6-9)
Tipoff: Wednesday, March 11, at 7 p.m. MT
Live stats: GoUVU.com