UMKC is one win away from playing for the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball title.
Behind Martez Harrison’s 24 points, the Kangaroos came back from a double-digit second-half deficit and beat Utah Valley 80-78 on Thursday night in the opening round of the WAC Tournament at the Orleans Arena.
The Kangaroos, 12-18, will play top-seeded New Mexico State, 22-9, in a semifinal at 8 p.m. Central on Friday. As one of the questioners in the postgame news conference pointed out, the Kangaroos came close to beating the Aggies in both regular-season matchups this season, losing each game by a point.
“Did you have to bring that up now?” UMKC coach Kareem Richardson said, joking. “We just battled our (behinds) off and I just want to enjoy this one for about an hour.
“Obviously they’re the head honchos in our league and we have a ton of respect for them. We’re going to get to the drawing board and figure out a couple of things to do differently.
“I think our guys will feel confident.”
Utah Valley had beaten UMKC in their two regular-season meetings and led by 13 with 16:48 remaining, but UMKC took a 71-70 lead off six straight points from Harrison.
“It was a rough start early in the game finishing around the rim,” Harrison said. “Coach and my teammates told me to stay positive in the second half.”
Jaden Jackson responded with five points for the Wolverines, 12-18, then Harrison opened an 8-0 run with a bucket, added another and also grabbed rebound and passed to Thaddeus Smith for a fast-break layup and a 79-75 UMKC lead with 2:11 remaining. Cory Cardwell's half-court try missed at the buzzer.
Harrison’s backcourt partner LaVell Boyd scored 18 points for UMKC, including 4 of 5 shooting from three-point range.
“As far as a guard duo, I think they’re two of the best in the league,” Richardson said.
Darius Austin had 12 points and a career-high 16 rebounds for UMKC, which had 17 offensive rebounds for 16-3 edge in second-chance points.
With the victory, UMKC has won back-to-back quarterfinal games in a conference tournament for the first time since 2003 and 2004. Now the Kangaroos will look to take the next step and reach a conference final.
“Really proud of the guys for sticking with it,” Richardson said. “For us that was one of our big keys offensively, to create second and third chance opportunities.”