Saturday, March 14, 2009 | 9:24 p.m.
Defense and rebounding, Utah coach Jim Boylen said, that’s what the Utes depend upon for success.
Offense will come and go, but defense and rebounding are the differences in winning and losing, and they were Saturday night.
Once Utah took control of the Mountain West Conference tournament title game against San Diego State, the Utes didn’t give it back.
They won, 52-50, for the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament that will be revealed Sunday.
It wasn’t easy, but Boylen never said it would be.
The Aztecs cut their deficit to 41-38 when 7-foot-2 center Luke Nevill sank a sky hook.
It was three, again, when SDSU lost the ball in a scramble and Utah got a free throw from Carlon Brown to nudge it to four.
The Utes sank five of six free throws the rest of the way to withstand an eight-point barrage from Aztecs guard Richie Williams to squeak it out.
And at the end, 6-8 senior forward Shaun Green left his man to jab the ball away from Williams, who was trying for some last-second heroics on the left side of the lane.
“For Shaun to have the awareness to come out and poke the ball away, and to help out, just shows that we’re a great help team, a great defensive team,” Nevill said. “That’s what we’re based on. That’s what our program is all about.”
Utah made 20 of its 27 free throws. San Diego State went 5-for-8 from the line.
SDSU senior forward Lorrenzo Wade said that was the difference.
“Anytime you’re getting to the line like that and getting easy points, it’s very difficult to win a ball game,” Wade said. “I thought we fought hard … but all in all, I was proud of my teammates.
“I put this one on my shoulders, because I didn’t come in here and play the way I was supposed to.”
Wade went 5-for-16 from the field for 12 points. He also had three rebounds, two assists, two steals and four turnovers in 35 minutes.
Utah went to the line 23 times in the second half, which stagnated any type of flow the Aztecs wanted to muster.
“Hey, it happens sometimes,” Wade said. “I can’t really dwell on it. There’s nothing I can really do, (just) hope that tomorrow we get some good news about the NCAA tournament. But right now, I feel comfortable about where we’re at.”
The paint wasn’t for the light-hearted in the MWC tournament title game.
Nevill –- whose mother, Joyce, visited from Perth, Australia, to watch him play this weekend –- had 18 points and 15 rebounds. SDSU center Ryan Amoroso tallied 11 points and 15 boards.
“In the second half … the refs kind of tightened up on how they were calling it on him,” Amoroso said. “I kind of backed off a little bit and allowed him to get some shots that he was able to hit.
“I didn’t even know he had 15 rebounds. I just saw the stat sheet. Last time I checked, he had five. That kind of caught me off guard. He had a big game tonight and he was tough to stop.”
Utah also won the women’s conference tournament title with a 63-58 victory over San Diego State on Saturday afternoon.
Athleticism and a fast pace had San Diego State ahead of Utah for roughly two-thirds of the game, but clutch play from tournament MVP Morgan Warburton kept the Utes ahead.
The Utah guard hit a 3-pointer with 2:57 to play to give Utah its first lead, at 55-54, of the second half.
Forty-six seconds later, she fed Kalee Whipple for an open layup underneath, which sent the Aztecs into a panicking tailspin, as they rushed shots to try to tie the game as quickly as possible.
Warburton hit four consecutive free throws -- she was 14-of-14 from the stripe on the afternoon -- to cap off her 24-point, eight-rebound, four-assist performance.
Whipple added 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds for the Utes, while the Aztecs were led by Jene Morris's 22 points.
Utah (22-9) secured the MWC's automatic NCAA Tournament bid, while San Diego State (23-7) still could be headed to the NCAAs.