Happy endings (Men’s basketball)

The Runnin’ Utes have shown a penchant for letting teams get the best of them down the stretch. But Saturday evening they managed to hold off a fervent Wyoming rally to earn a 79-70 win on senior night.

The win broke a four-game losing streak and clinched the No. 6 seed in next week’s MWC tournament in Denver.

With 5:12 remaining, the Utes (13-14, 6-10 MWC) took a 61-41 lead on a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Johnnie Bryant. The 20-point lead was amassed thanks to a 13-0 run and an 8-0 run that broke open a six-point Ute lead at the half.

But Wyoming (12-17, 5-11) would not go back to the Front Range quietly.

In what Ute coach Ray Giacoletti referred to as an “NBA-quality” display, freshman Cowboy guard Brandon Ewing single-handedly got Wyoming back in the game. Ewing had entered the game averaging 12.4 points per game on the season but was kept quiet for most of the game, not scoring a point until 11:46 remained in the game.

“He hadn’t been shooting as well as he had (earlier in the season),” Giacoletti said. “But once he got in the rhythm, he got on a roll and scored points.”

And score points he did. In a span of two minutes and 44 seconds, from the 4:25 mark to the 1:41 mark, Ewing scored 17 points all by himself, eventually finishing with 25. His efforts helped the Cowboys creep to within five with 50 seconds remaining. But the Utes hit free throws when they needed to at the end, and Wyoming ran out of time.

“It was a big win for us,” senior forward Bryant Markson said. “Obviously it got a little close there at the end, but we found a way to get it done.”

On senior night, Markson finished his Huntsman Center career with a flourish. The high-flyer scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, including a double-pump reverse dunk on a baseball pass from fellow senior Tim Drisdom that whipped the MUSS and most of the other 10,759 fans into a frenzy.

“Tim (and I) looked at each other,” Markson said. “My dude was playing defense kind of sloppy, so I told Tim to throw it long with a little eye gesture and he did. That fantastic dunk, that’s me doing extra stuff. I don’t know why I do it.”

The four Ute seniors-Markson, Drisdom, Casey Iverson and Chris Jackson-were all honored before the game, each receiving framed pictures and getting photos taken with family members. At the contest’s outset, Giacoletti rewarded the senior quartet, allowing all four to start the game, along with freshman forward Shaun Green.

All four seniors had highlights in their final home game. Markson had the big second half; Drisdom had the long assist to set up Markson’s dunk and stopped the bleeding at the end with some tough defense down the stretch. Jackson finished with 13 points and five rebounds; Iverson notched two steals in only six minutes on the court.

“I was full of emotions in the second half,” Drisdom said. “I told the guys, ‘We cannot lose.’ It was everybody’s senior game, so we can’t lose.”

The Utes will now try to parlay the win into an unlikely run at the MWC tournament. Playing as the No. 6 seed, the Utes will face rival BYU on Thursday at 10 p.m. in the first round. The Utes and Cougars (20-7, 12-4) split in the regular season with both winning on their home court.

“That’s going to be a big one,” Jackson said. “We played (BYU) really hard here, and down there they fed on their crowd and got the best of us down the stretch. It’s going to be whoever can come out with the most energy and play the best defense that’s going to win the game.”

The MWC tournament will be played at the Pepsi Center in Denver. The semifinals will be Friday, with the championship contest on Saturday evening.