CHAMPIONS!

Talk about your bad timing. UNLV played arguably its worst 10 minutes of basketball this season while falling behind BYU, 24-10, at the start of the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game Saturday afternoon. But the Rebels (28-6) more than made up for the slow start over the final 30 minutes.

With senior guard Michael Umeh (18 points, seven rebounds) and tourney MVP Kevin Kruger (10 points, four steals) leading the way, the Rebels outscored the Cougars, 52-33, after intermission to claim their second-ever MWC Tournament championship and first since 2000.

When the final buzzer sounded, about 1,000 long-suffering UNLV rushed the court and stayed there for almost 30 minutes until head coach Lon Kruger snipped the final strand of the net at the west end of the court at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Not bad for a team picked to finish sixth in the preseason media poll after failing to even garner an NIT bid after a disappointing 17-13 finish a year earlier.

"(It) ranks very high," Kruger, who will be taking his fourth different school to the NCAA Tournament, said when asked where the victory ranked in his coaching career. "I think especially the way it came about. BYU dominated us early, knocked us around, did things they wanted to do.

"Our guys had that look in their eye, yet they kind of regrouped, hung in there and finally got a little bit of activity going defensively, got some nice defensive boards, made some shots, then got on a really nice roll in the second half."

The lead changed hands seven times in a six-minute stretch in the second half before Umeh broke a 59-59 tie by hitting both ends of a one-and-one with 5:33 to go.

Umeh then put the Rebels up by four when he nailed a pull-up 18-footer to make it 63-59. After BYU forward Keena Young (34 points, nine rebounds) sank one of two free throws to cut the lead to 63-60, sophomore forward Joe Darger hit a long 3-pointer with 3:47 to go make it 66-60.

BYU never got any closer than three points after that.

"I thought that stretch of basketball, when it was going we were up by one, down by one, back and forth for four or five possessions, was a pretty gritty effort by players on both teams," Kruger said.

UNLV won despite the fact Kruger and first team all-MWC forward Wendell White didn't even score a point in the first half as the Rebels missed their first 10 field goal attempts. The Rebels missed 13 of their first 14 shots and were outrebounded, 13-2, to start the game.

"The first 10 minutes they came out and threw a haymaker and it landed pretty much," Kevin Kruger said. "We just had to settle down and be more physical. We talked about the things we had to do to change the game in our favor. We responded well."

Still, the Rebels trailed by 11 points, 37-26, at halftime after BYU closed out the half with a 7-0 run that was capped by a 3-pointer by guard Michael Rose.

But momentum seemed to change early in the second half when Kevin Kruger, who was scoreless up until that time, came up with a four-point play, sinking a long 3-pointer while getting also getting fouled by Cougar guard Austin Ainge. Kruger's free throw cut BYU's lead to 41-36 with 16:49 remaining.

"I think (the four-point play) helped me relax a little bit," Kruger said. "It felt good and kind of settled me down a little bit, and put me back in the mode I wanted to be in or expected to be in the whole game. It seemed like the game kind of slowed down after that point for me personally."

It was about that time that it appeared that fatigue from dealing with UNLV's pressure defense also caught up with the Cougars, who missed seven free throws down the stretch.

"I think the concentration level was good," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "Maybe fatigue a little bit, playing three nights in a row. But you battle through it. … We had plenty of chances. UNLV just made more plays than we did."

When it was over, it took Mountain West Conference officials almost 15 minutes to make enough room on the court to present the Rebels with their championship trophy and Kevin Kruger with his tourney MVP award.

"It felt great," Kevin Kruger said of celebrating on the court afterward. "It was an emotional rush, you know, to kind of come together the way we did to win it. We could have easily folded and packed up and considered it a pretty good tournament, a pretty good season, a good regular season. But, you know, we didn't. We came together and fought through some things and ended up with victory."

"It was definitely … nice," Umeh, who cut the first strand of the net and then kissed it, said. "Four years I played here and it's been a great experience. … It's definitely good to go out on top like this."

Kruger was joined on the all tournament team by guard Wink Adams, who finished with 15 points and three assists Saturday, Wyoming guard Brad Jones and the BYU trio of Lee Cummard (13 points, 13 rebounds), Young and center Trent Plaisted, who was held to just seven points and three rebounds in the title game by Joel Anthony and Gaston Essengue.


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