Latter-day Saint teammates tell about UVU’s run from devastating loss to NIT final four

Tim Fuller and Blaze Nield, both returned missionaries, have been part of Utah Valley University’s deepest NIT run in school history

On March 10, the Utah Valley University men’s basketball team was cruising along, up 23 points on Southern Utah University in the second half of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals.

The Wolverines were almost within a conference championship victory of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

Then the wheels came off, and UVU found itself on the wrong end of a 89-88 loss. Senior teammates Blaze Nield and Tim Fuller said the squad was absolutely crushed.

“It was devastating,” Nield said, “probably the worse loss I have ever experienced.”

“It was a heartbreaking loss. There is no other way to put it,” Fuller said. “We definitely felt it for a few days.”

Three weeks later, the Wolverines have more than recovered from that low point to win three straight games over formidable opponents to reach the final four of the National Invitational Tournament.

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UVU will play the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Tuesday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. MTD. The winner will play in the NIT championship game against the winner of North Texas and Wisconsin on Thursday, March 30.

Before Tuesday’s game, Nield and Fuller, both returned missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talked about overcoming the SUU loss, the team’s remarkable postseason run and their faith.

UVU guard Blaze Nield (3) dribbles near a Stephen F. Austin State defender.
UVU guard Blaze Nield (3) dribbles near a Stephen F. Austin State defender in the UCCU Center on the UVU Campus in Orem, Utah on March 3, 2023. | UVU Athletics

What happened after the SUU loss

After UVU’s early exit from the WAC Tournament, few on the team were initially in the mood to keep playing.

“If you had asked us before if we wanted to play in the NIT, we would have all said no,” said Nield, of Lehi, Utah. “Our minds were on March Madness. We knew had the team to do it.”

But there was still an opportunity to make school history with a run in the NIT.

Setting aside the disappointment and fatigue of the season, the Wolverines made the definitive decision to give their best in the first round against New Mexico, said Nield, who served a Spanish-speaking mission in Washington D.C.

“Once the game started, we jumped back into that competitive mindset and started playing, started hooping, and then it was fun. It felt like a lot of the stress was off our shoulders. We could just relax, play and have fun,” the point guard said. “Obviously we have been winning and making the most of the situation. We want to be here, and we are grateful to still be playing. We are trying to seize the moment and do something special.”

Utah Valley big man Tim Fuller (5) prepares to high-five teammate Justin Harmon (0).
Utah Valley big man Tim Fuller (5) prepares to high-five teammate Justin Harmon (0) during a game against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the quarterfinals of the National Invitational Tournament on March 22, 2023. UVU won 74-68. | UVU Athletics

The Wolverines wanted to finish their year on a strong note, said Fuller, who served his mission in El Salvador.

“I think it speaks to the collective character of our team to be able to rally together and play as well as we have because a lot of teams would collapse or fold under those circumstances,” said the 6-foot-9 big man from Gilbert, Arizona. “We love playing ball together as a group. We have a fun group of guys who have a lot of chemistry both on and off the court. We didn’t want our season to end on such a sour note.”

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3 big wins

Back in the right frame of mind, Utah Valley rattled off three straight NIT victories:

Early season non-conference wins over BYU and Oregon helped prepare UVU for their NIT opponents, said Fuller, who made highlight reels after throwing down a long alley-oop dunk against Cincinnati.

UVU guard Blaze Nield takes a shot against Colorado in the second round of the NIT Tournament on March 19, 2023.
UVU guard Blaze Nield takes a shot against Colorado in the second round of the NIT Tournament on March 19, 2023. | UVU Athletics

“It gave us confidence early on knowing that just because these teams are maybe in a bigger conference than us, that doesn’t mean we can’t compete with them,” he said. ‘‘That is what we have been able to do.”

Faith and lessons learned

Nield and Fuller, both transfers to UVU from other schools, have each relied on their Latter-day Saint faith to help them through the ups and downs of a college basketball season.

“Having Christ as my anchor and being able to rely on him, knowing that at the end of the day, come what may, my faith in Him is going to help us make it through, that’s been really valuable to me this year,” said Fuller, whose wife, Aubrie, is expecting their first child in July.

Prayer, temple attendance and support from his wife and family have also made a positive difference for Nield.

“Life is not easy,” he said. “But having Heavenly Father, someone you can talk to and receive comfort and peace from is something that has been super huge for me.”

Both players have learned valuable life lessons while playing basketball at UVU and are grateful for their opportunities.

“Putting your blood, sweat and tears into something and dedicating your time is something that can take you a long way in life,” Nield said. “If you push yourself, work hard, trust others and sacrifice, you can be successful in anything.”

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This year’s NIT final four will be held in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was previously hosted in New York at Madison Square Garden.

While playing in the historic venue would have been a thrill, Nield and Fuller are both glad the NIT final four will be played in a location more accessible for family, friends and fans.

The fact that Tuesday’s game against UAB will be played at the same venue — Orleans Arena — where UVU lost to SUU has not been lost on the Wolverines.

“We have joked that there might be a little bit of PTSD in that locker room when we first walk in, but we are looking forward to making some new memories there,” Fuller said.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Nield said. “We believe this is part of our journey. We know that last time we were there things didn’t go the way we want it to. So now we are getting a second crack at it to be successful and changed the ending.”

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