Utah wins third MWC tournament title for NCAA bid

LAS VEGAS -- Although Elaine Elliott has coached a bevy of remarkable scorers during her 26 seasons at Utah, not many could ever match the dramatic flair of Morgan Warburton.

The smooth-shooting senior concocted one big finish after another during the Utes' run to the Mountain West Conference's regular-season and tournament titles -- and even San Diego State had to applaud her fantastic finale.

Warburton scored 24 points and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:57 left while dominating the final minutes, leading top-seeded Utah past the stunned Aztecs for a 63-58 victory Saturday.

Kalee Whipple scored all 21 of her points in the second half for the Utes (22-9), who trailed throughout the second half until scoring 11 consecutive points in a blistering 3 1/2-minute stretch.

Warburton, the Mountain West player of the year and tournament MVP, scored nine of those points and assisted on Whipple's layup for the other two.

"We all came together and realized, this is it," Warburton said. "What's good about this team is we find ways to win at the end of games. I'm just so proud of everybody."

Utah's series of relentless late possessions didn't have the highlight-reel irresistibility of Warburton's weaving drive through traffic for the game-winning shot against New Mexico in Friday's semifinal, but Elliott was even more impressed this time.

"It takes guts, because when you're willing to make plays to win a game, you may also not win games," Elliott said. "That takes a big heart, and that takes somebody who's willing to take the failure of missing a shot [with] the wonders of making a shot."

Elliott's Utah teams have won seven regular-season titles in the Mountain West's 10 years of existence. But the Utes had won the league tournament just twice, in 2000 and 2006, before surviving this perilous run at the Thomas & Mack Center.

"I suppose I'd use the word 'overachieve,' because we really had a lot to put together with this group," Elliott said. "Giving them such a taxing early-season schedule ... I think that's why they've won games here, why they've won close games. They would have folded before this if they just didn't have that in their character."

Katie King added 12 points and eight rebounds for Utah, which is headed to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. The Aztecs must wait until Monday to learn whether they'll get an at-large berth in their first NCAA tournament since 1997.

Jene Morris scored 22 points before fouling out with 48.6 seconds left while trying to guard Warburton for the second-seeded Aztecs (23-7), who fell a few minutes short of the first Mountain West tournament title in school history.

"I believe we've done enough to compete in the NCAA tournament," San Diego State coach Beth Burns said. "But at this time of year, there are more than 64 voices saying that."

The schools shared the regular-season conference title. San Diego State had never finished higher than fifth in the Mountain West standings until this breakout season.

After playing quietly through much of the second half, Warburton got most of her points at the free throw line, where she went 14-for-14. Warburton's 3-pointer was her only field goal of the second half, but her drives to the hoop repeatedly drew fouls from San Diego State's defense or created shots for her teammates.

Whipple went 6-for-9 from the field with a 3-pointer and added eight free throws in the second half. Her biggest score was a layup that barely beat the shot clock with 2:11 left, putting the Utes up 57-54.

"Me and Morgan had that look," Whipple said. "She gives that squint-eye -- 'You're going, right?' I went to the basket, and it was a really big momentum boost."

Four players scored eight points apiece for the Aztecs, including Quenese Davis, whose 4-for-16 shooting performance didn't help. Leading 54-50 with 4:16 left, San Diego State missed six straight shots and a free throw, failing to score again until 7 seconds remained.

Burns acknowledged her team appeared to crumble mentally in the final minutes, particularly after Warburton's 3-pointer erased their lead.

"It kind of gave us a little shake," said Paris Johnson, who scored eight points for the Aztecs.

Morris collapsed into tears on the San Diego State bench after fouling out, but the Aztecs have a strong case for an NCAA berth. Morris also will return next season for San Diego State, which loses just one starter to graduation.