12:00 AM ET, March 11, 2006
Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado
DENVER (AP) -- If these are Steve McClain's final days as coach at Wyoming, the Cowboys are sure making them memorable.Justin Williams' triple-double and Brad Jones' 20 points led seventh-seeded Wyoming (14-17) into the championship of the Mountain West Conference with a 60-47 semifinal victory over sixth-seeded Utah on Friday night.Williams had 10 points, 15 rebounds and 12 blocked shots, more than double the tournament's previous record of five rejections last accomplished by New Mexico's Danny Granger in 2005."He just changed everybody's shot," Utes center Luke Nevill said. "Even if he didn't block it, we had to shoot it a bit higher, a bit quicker."Williams played a monstrous role in Utah's 27 percent shooting performance."It just felt like when I was going up, he was always there," Johnnie Bryant said. "One time I thought I had an open layup and he just came up and blocked it. I think he adjusted a lot of peoples' shots down here tonight. We just thought about it every time we drove, and that had a big impact on the game."As did Jones, whose 20 points tied his career high, and freshman Brandon Ewing, who added 17 points.Williams said he didn't even realize he was having such a big game until he glanced up at the scoreboard in the closing seconds."I never pay attention to things like that," he said. "I just play hard until the end of the buzzer."The Cowboys, whose latest win came on the same day speculation swirled that McClain would be fired after the season, will face league champion San Diego State (23-8) for the title Saturday night and the NCAA tournament trip that goes with it.It's their first conference championship appearance since 1988.They upset second-seeded Air Force in the quarterfinals, handing the Falcons a serious setback in their designs on an NCAA tournament bid.Nevill, the 7-foot freshman who scored a tournament record 29 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in Utah's quarterfinal upset of BYU, got into foul trouble early and was limited to six points in seven first-half minutes as the Utes fell behind 27-19 at halftime. He finished with 17 points and nine boards.Wyoming's Steve Leven, who scored 20 against Air Force 24 hours earlier, managed just five points against Utah, but they were crucial.He got his first points on a 3-pointer for a 44-38 lead with 7½ minutes left after the Utes came out of a timeout in a zone. He added a 15-footer a minute later to make it 46-38, and the Cowboys' ball protection, 59 percent shooting and tenacious defense continued to stymie the Utes (14-15).Nevill's two free throws with 1:38 left pulled Utah to 52-46, but Williams intercepted Bryant's pass on the Utes' next possession, and Ewing sank four big free throws to make it 56-47 with 1:03 left.Before the game, McClain denied a newspaper report in which he seemed to confirm he would be fired soon. Rumors about McClain's job security have been rampant after a 5-11 league mark and McClain himself added fuel to the speculation when he was asked by the Las Vegas Review-Journal if he would be fired by athletic director Gary Barta. The newspaper quoted him Friday as saying: "It's true. But I have nothing to hang my head about."However, McClain told The Associated Press before tip-off that he might be fired but hadn't been told one way or the other: "I may be gone, I don't know," McClain said.McClain's contract runs through 2010. He would get a $535,000 buyout if he's fired after this season.He's 140-99 in eight seasons with the Cowboys. In his first five seasons, McClain guided the Cowboys to three NITs and to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2002.Wyoming spokesman Kevin McKinney said Barta didn't have a timeline for his end-of-season review with McClain, who can push it back even further with another upset Saturday night.Without directing his comments toward anybody in particular, McClain had a message for his program's many critics."We're playing for a championship," McClain said. "No matter what anybody wants to say about our program, this will be three out of eight years that my program has played for a championship. We've won two championships outright and we'll play for the third one this year. And with some pretty young players."The Cowboys said McClain hasn't even brought up his uncertain future with them."Coach has shown no indication of anything happening," Williams said. "Not done anything to let us think he's leaving."And they've certainly done nothing this week to facilitate their embattled coach's departure.
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