MWC TOURNAMENT CHAMPS!|
LAS VEGAS (AP) - Michael Umeh was the first one up the ladder to cut down the nets after UNLV won the Mountain West Conference championship. He overcame a lot to earn that honor.
The senior guard who considered leaving UNLV after coach Charlie Spoonhour stepped down for health reasons in 2004 led the Runnin' Rebels to their first NCAA tournament bid in seven years Saturday night.
Umeh scored 18 points in No. 25 UNLV's 78-70 comeback win over BYU in the Mountain West tournament final. Wink Adams added 15 points as the Rebels overcame an early double-digit deficit against the top-seeded Cougars, who got a career-high 34 points from Keena Young.
Umeh was the first to take a snippet of the net as a sea of red-clad fans celebrated UNLV's return to power, and what a view it was for a man who struggled through much of his senior season after his junior year was cut short by a knee injury that required surgery.
"Definitely has been a long journey," Umeh said. "Definitely like to thank Spoon for giving me the opportunity to come here. Glad he was in the stands today."
Rebels coach Lon Kruger, who became the fifth coach to take four teams to the NCAAs, was glad he was able to talk Umeh into staying three years ago.
"You've got to have people in the core of your program to get things turned, to get things going. Michael Umeh is as good as you can have in that regard," Kruger said. "I thought his play today resembled what it was two years ago. Last year he fought through some injuries. I thought today he had some pretty good bounce and confidence in that jumper. He was outstanding."
And for a while, he was the only one on his team finding the nets that he would later cut down.
The second-seeded Runnin' Rebels (28-6) came out cold, going without a basket for nearly six minutes, missing 14 of their first 15 shots and falling behind 16-3 before capping their first week in the Top 25 since 1992-93 with the trophy and their first NCAA trip since 2000.
Umeh sank two 3-pointers while the rest of his teammates were a combined 0-for-13.
Young, the conference player of the year, finally snapped out of his funk - he had gone 7-for-26 from the floor in the first two games - by sinking 13 of 18 shots. But it wasn't enough to prevent the Rebels from winning their 17th straight game on their home court, where they finished 19-1.
No. 23 BYU (25-8), coming off its first outright league title since 1987-88 and owner of the nation's longest homecourt winning streak at 31 games, still looks like a strong bet for an at-large NCAA bid.
Lee Cummard had 13 points and 13 rebounds for the Cougars, who appeared right at home in the first half, taking a 37-26 lead at the break.
The Cougars led 41-28 before the Rebels came roaring back and their fans capped the comeback by storming the court and singing, "Viva! Las Vegas!" before they cleared out to allow the award ceremony to proceed.
Kevin Kruger, the coach's son and the tournament's MVP who half-joked after each of his 21-point performances over the previous 48 hours that he could just as easily go scoreless his next time out, missed his first six shots and didn't score until three minutes into the second half for UNLV.
He was fouled by Austin Ainge while sinking a 3-pointer and his four-point play pulled UNLV to 41-34, and that was the beginning of the comeback.
"I think it just helped me relax a little bit," said Kevin Kruger, who finished with 10 points. "Kind of settled me down. It just seemed like the game kind of slowed down after that point for me personally."
And it sped up for the rest of the Rebels.
Adams' 3-pointer from the right side with 11:45 remaining gave UNLV its first lead at 51-50, and the lead changed hands six more times until Umeh's two free throws with 5:33 gave UNLV the lead for good.
"Whenever you lose a game, you're going to reflect on all the little things," said BYU's Trent Plaisted, who was limited to seven points after averaging 24.5 in the first two games of the tournament. "I thought we gave great effort. The result wasn't in our favor, but we fought hard. What more can you ask for?"