Saturday, March 14, 2009 | 12:31 a.m.
Luke Nevill saved his savviest move for late Friday night, when he reached behind a black curtain as he walked by the media area in the Cox Pavilion.
The Mountain West Conference player of the year scooped up a black plastic bowl of sesame sticks, pretzels, cheese crackers and other assorted junk food.
After he belted Wyoming with 23 points and 15 rebounds in a 68-55 semifinal victory in the league tournament next door in the Thomas & Mack Center, the 7-foot-2, 270-pound center just needed some nourishment.
“Hey, you guys have to watch your weight,” said Nevill, with a smile, when jokingly told it was media grub.
Feasting on the Cowboys came at a critical time for the big Aussie, who had only 10 points, on 1-for-2 shooting, with five defensive rebounds Thursday in a 61-58 quarterfinal victory over TCU.
Lawrence Borha’s 3-pointer with two seconds remaining was the difference for the Utes against the Horned Frogs.
Friday night, Nevill played such a major role in propelling Utah to its first conference tournament finale since 2005 that his coach compared him to one of the all-time great NBA centers.
When second-year Utah boss Jim Boylen spent 11 seasons as an assistant in Houston, he watched Hakeem Olajuwon dominate at both ends of the court.
Might be a bit unfair, Boylen told a media gathering, to compare Nevill to such an NBA star, so Boylen declined to name Olajuwon before an audience.
“I don’t want to say it because it puts a lot of pressure on the kid,” Boylen said.
After he had completed an interview for The Mtn. cable network near midnight, Boylen confirmed that he was referring to Olajuwon.
Because of Nevill’s dominance at both ends of the court, Boylen said of his comparison of the Aussie to Olajuwon.
“The one thing I’ll say about Luke is our team became a team when he became a teammate,” Boylen said. “Our team became a team when he committed to the defensive end of the floor about halfway through last year.”
Nevill scored 10 of Utah’s first 13 points, guiding it to a 13-6 lead.
But his most important baskets were what Boylen compared to 3-pointers for other teams, like Wyoming or UNLV or New Mexico.
With about 12 minutes left, Wyoming had whittled its deficit to five. Cowboys coach Heath Schroyer was clapping and waving for his fans in the crowd of 11,629 to yell.
And Nevill quelled that uprising with a hook shot in the lane.
Wyoming senior leader Brandon Ewing missed a jumper, and Nevill raced down to hit another hook shot.
Utah guard Luke Drca frustrated Sean Ogirri into turning the ball over, and Nevill wound up sinking a free throw at the other end to give the Utes a cushion they carried the rest of the way.
“We have the MVP of the league on our team, so we concentrate on punching the ball inside. Luke executed every play,” Drca said.
“We had to get something solid,” Utah guard Carlon Brown said of Nevill. “I mean, Luke is pretty solid.”
Utah lost that 2005 title game to New Mexico after winning it the previous year over UNLV.
The season series against San Diego State (23-8), the championship foe today at 4 p.m., has been mixed.
In the Aztecs’ nine-point victory in San Diego, Nevill had 17 points and 7 rebounds. SDSU big man Ryan Amoroso had 17 and 8.
In Utah’s 12-point win in Salt Lake City, Nevill went for 12 and 3. Senior forward Sean Greene went for 21 and 10.
Boylen was impressed how SDSU battled adversity, in ailments, injuries and other issues, all season to reach the final.
But he beamed about his weapon, the anchor of the team who had one of the finest games of his season against Wyoming.
Nevill also gave out three assists, blocked four shots and stole a ball in 39 minutes. Then he made a deft move by the black curtain en route to the media podium.
“I was starving,” he said. “I just needed anything.”
Nevill hopes to continue feeding his large appetite today.