While his players embraced and Nevada's fans rushed the court, coach Trent Johnson calmly shook hands with UTEP's players and coaches. Then he whooped and trotted back to his bench, looking for somebody to hug.
After five seasons resurrecting the Wolf Pack program, the intense Nevada coach had earned a Valvano-esque moment: His team was the Western Athletic Conference champion, headed to its first NCAA tournament since 1985.
Kirk Snyder led Nevada to the WAC tournament title despite a terrible shooting performance, scoring the go-ahead basket with 3:14 left in a 66-60 victory over the Miners on Saturday night.
"I've never seen Coach this happy," said Kevinn Pinkney, who scored 15 points and got two key baskets in the final minutes. "He's been here five years, and this feels good for him."
Snyder, the WAC player of the year, finished with 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting and 14 rebounds, while Todd Okeson added 14 points. Nevada (23-8) shot just 31 percent but hung on through a thrilling finish, holding the Miners to just two free throws in the final 3:32.
Nevada won its seventh straight game despite miserable shooting by its top four scorers. Snyder, Pinkney, Okeson and Nick Fazekas combined to go 10-for-46 against UTEP's impressive defense, but the Wolf Pack was just as tough: UTEP's leading scorer, Omar Thomas, had 12 points in the first half, but got shut out in the second half.
"If you're going to lose a game, you might as well lose one like that," said UTEP coach Kevin Gillispie, who choked up when speaking of his players' dedication. "There's no one that's played harder or better than us from Day One. We're an NCAA tournament team, and we deserve to be there."
"I've never seen Coach this happy. He's been here five years, and this feels good for him," said junior Kevinn Pinkney on coach Trent Johnson
When Snyder was introduced as the tournament MVP, Nevada's fans chanted "One more year!" to the junior guard. Snyder, considered a strong NBA prospect, grinned and cocked his hand to his ear, nodding his head.
"I'm just trying to finish off the school year and get to the next level - in the tournament, the tournament," said Snyder, who won't decide his future until the season ends.
Filiberto Rivera had 14 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Miners (24-7), who split the regular-season WAC title with Nevada. Despite an impressive performance in the final, UTEP fell just short of an automatic NCAA bid in its worst-to-first season.
The Miners, who haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1992, won just six games last season, finishing 10th in the WAC before their second-year turnaround under Gillispie.
They must hope for an at-large bid - and if anyone on the selection committee watched the final, it'll be hard to keep UTEP out. The teams were as evenly matched as they appeared after splitting their regular season series and sharing the WAC title with identical 13-5 records.
"It speaks volumes to what he's done," Johnson said of Gillispie, a rumored candidate for the vacancy at Texas A&M. "Hopefully he's on his way out the door, and he'll take the A&M job, and UTEP can start all over again."
Garry Hill-Thomas and the Pack are off to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1985.
The Miners planned to bus through the night to Los Angeles to catch a flight back home to El Paso, where they've got big Sunday plans.
"We're going to have a party at my house," Gillispie said. "We're going to watch the selection show, and they're going to call our name."
Though he won MVP honors, Snyder was kept in check by the Miners' team defense. He missed his first six shots and didn't get a field goal until a tip-in with 1:25 left in the first half.
The lead changed hands seven times in the second half, but UTEP seemed in control until Okeson got the Wolf Pack back into contention with back-to-back 3-pointers with 6½ minutes to play.
"I just felt like nothing was going down, and not just for me," Okeson said. "When I hit that (first) shot, I thought, 'Finally, I broke some ice off that rim."'
Nevada took the lead for good on Snyder's layup, and Pinkney added a short jumper for a 61-58 lead with 2:01 left. Rivera committed an offensive foul and missed a free throw on consecutive possessions, allowing Nevada to hang on.
Thousands of Nevada fans made the trip from Reno to cheer on the Wolf Pack at a two-thirds-empty Save Mart Center. One fan held a sign that said, "Welcome to Lawlor Events Center" - the Wolf Pack's home gym, which will be the site of the 2005 conference tourney.