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LAS VEGAS (AP) - Shaun Green's teammates couldn't believe the Utah forward had been saving such blinding speed for four years. He chased down Richie Williams from behind, poking the ball away from the San Diego State point guard right before the final buzzer.
"Usually, Shaun is slow, but on that instance, he wanted that ball," Carlon Brown said with a bit of disbelief. "So he went and got it."
The play was improbable and imperfect - and an entirely fitting peak to a remarkable revival of the Runnin' Utes, who are headed back to the NCAA tournament under another balding coach whose team's play drives him to tears of joy. Luke Nevill scored 10 of his 18 points in the second half of a defense-dominated game, and Green's cagey steal clinched Utah's 52-50 victory over San Diego State on Saturday for the Mountain West Conference tournament title.
Lawrence Borha scored 12 points and hit three free throws in the final 12.8 seconds for the second-seeded Utes (24-9), the league's regular-season co-champs. Utah is back on top in just the second season for coach Jim Boylen, who did Rick Majerus' legacy proud with a few lengthy crying jags in his postgame news conference.
Williams hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the final 14 seconds for San Diego State to make it 51-50. After Borha missed his last free throw with 7.6 seconds left, Williams drove downcourt for a final shot - but Green swatted it cleanly from his hands on the perimeter.
"He got past me, he was on the side of me, and then I saw the ball and took a chance," said Green, who willingly moved to Utah's bench this year after three seasons as a starter. "Once I knew I stole it and we had won the championship, it was the best feeling in the world."
The Utes won their second Mountain West tournament title not with scoring, but by limiting San Diego State star Lorrenzo Wade to 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting before Green made the biggest defensive play of all.
"For Shaun to have the awareness to come out and poke the ball away just shows that we're a great help team, a great defensive team," said Nevill, the 7-foot-2 center who was named tournament MVP. "That's what we're based on. That's what our program is all about."
Nevill, the Mountain West's player of the year, also had 15 rebounds. The Australian star paused for a long moment on the barely-needed ladder while cutting down the net, soaking in the cheers from Utah fans who flooded the court at the Thomas & Mack Center.
As for Boylen? After celebrating on-court with a profound expression of relief, he paused for several long, teary moments while fighting back his emotions.
"The foundation of our program has been defense and toughness, and I thought we showed that," said Boylen, whose team shared the regular-season title with BYU and New Mexico after two late losses.
"(Last) Sunday, I talked to my team. I said, 'We're gonna win one outright.' ... It was good motivation for us. We got the whole thing this time."
Brown added 10 points for the Utes, who managed just one field goal in the final 8 minutes, but stayed just ahead of the Aztecs (23-9) with free throws until Green's big defensive play.
Utah is headed to its first NCAA tournament since 2005, while fourth-seeded San Diego State also is likely to make its third NCAA appearance in coach Steve Fisher's decade at the school despite this unappealing finale.
The Aztecs reached the final with a gritty win over UNLV, the tournament's host and two-time champion, followed by a come-from-behind victory over top-seeded BYU.
"I'm a good Catholic, and I'm going to light two candles instead of one tomorrow when I go to church," Fisher said. "It won't be hypocritical, because I always go, because I always light at least one. I'll put an extra dollar in and light two candles."
Ryan Amoroso had 11 points and 15 rebounds for the Aztecs, but star scorers Wade and Kyle Spain combined for just 21 points on 9-of-25 shooting. Wade carried the Aztecs to victories in the tournament's first two rounds, but the senior didn't have his shot from the opening moments against the Utes.
"They were the same shots I was shooting in the past two games," Wade said. "Just couldn't get them to go down. ... I didn't feel like it was slipping away, because every time they scored, we came down and made something happen."
The Utes took the lead by opening the second half with a 10-2 run, and they settled into a groove of passing down low at every opportunity. Nevill went 6-for-9 from the free throw line, and his picture-perfect jump hook put Utah ahead 43-38 with 3:51 to play.
"They created the separation that we never were able to overcome," Fisher said.
The gritty win completed a tournament sweep for the Utes, whose women's team also won the regular-season league title before beating San Diego State in the tournament championship game three hours earlier.
Along with the undefeated Utah football team's Mountain West title and subsequent demolition of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the 2008-09 athletic year is arguably the most remarkable in school history - and it's not over yet.
"Whoever we get seeded against, it doesn't really matter," Nevill said. "We're going to be ready to play."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)