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The University of Utah made it to the final of the 2012 Las Vegas Invitational CRC Qualifier in dramatic fashion, scoring a last-second try to beat Davenport University 17-12 in the semifinal.

Davenport had beaten Utah in pool play 10-7, a game played at 8am on Friday, when it seemed Utah was not at their best. But that assessment might be harsh on Davenport, which dominated large portions of the semi Saturday.

Utah scored first, using their width and pace to commit Davenport on the right and then recycled quickly to find space on the left, where Tonata Lauti was able to make some ground before feeding Winston Harris for the try and the 5-0 lead.

But after that Davenport spent much of the first half in the Utah 22. They recycled well and scored after a nifty kick for Lance Cavanaugh resulted in a penalty for the Michigan team. Davenport worked the sidelines and then Cavanaugh showed he can run a little bit, too, and just stretched over in the corner.

Utah was on defense after that, scrambling well and making some thundering tackles. They also had a prime opportunity at the end of the first half with a lineout at midfield, but overthrew the jumper. The half ended 5-5.

In the second half, Cavanaugh again showed his ability, sidestepping two Utah defenders and going 50 meters before Utah scrumhalf and all-everything Don Pati hauled him down.

From there Utah got the ball back but their passing was suspect – one rolled off the goalpost. Somehow, the Utes avoided giving up a try, despite dropping balls in their own in-goal, and giving up a penalty and three scrums five meters from the line.

In the end the Utah defense forced a knock-on. With just three minutes to go, the Utes unveiled their secret weapon. Previously capped Thretton Palamo has been coaching the Utah 7s team. He was also on the playing roster, and with a rash of injuries in the forwards Utah needed him. The big prop came on for that next scrum, and then waited on the wing for the right moment.

Palamo got the ball from a penalty, sidestepped a couple of Davenport players, and was gone 95 meters.

“I wanted to huddle up midway through that run,” said the current Utah football player. “It was good, but I feel like I haven’t played rugby in years.”

That made it 10-5, and despite a bad miss on an easy conversion, Utah was up. And it seemed like it would be more soon thereafter. Utah pressured and Palamo attracted a lot of attention, often from Ryan Hargraves, whose defense was outstanding. But because of that attention, the Utes had an odd-man rush set up on the left side. Pati’s pass would have set up an easy try, but Davenport’s JP Eloff intercepted and raced 80 meters to tie the game. Eloff popped the kick over and with time winding down, Davenport led 12-10.

Davenport gained possession one more time and were stopped just short. It seemed like Utah’s options were dwindling. But Pati took over from there. The fire-hydrant scrumhalf ripped the ball out of a ruck, and mounted a counter-attack from just in front of his team’s tryline. Using every member of the team, Utah worked the phases. Pati made much of the territory, and finally capped it off with a try under the posts with no time left. With the conversion, Utah won 17-12.

“We showed a lot of patience,” said Pati. “I give it to the boys, they were smart and worked really hard.”

After Eloff’s try, there was no need for any big motivational words.

“It’s all about bringing yourself up; you can’t tell the guys to bring themselves up if you’re not doing the same thing,” Pati said, adding that the turnover at the end was important. “If you want to do great things, you can’t do it without the ball, so we needed the ball.”

An emotional Eloff made it plain the loss stung.

“We came out and gave everything we had,” said Eloff. “I am so proud of the boys for stepping up and showing a small school can compete against the big schools. The boys have given up so much, and we will build on this.”

Now Utah faces Life University in Sam Boyd Stadium in front of a huge crowd.

“We’re really excited, “ said Pati.

Utah 17
Tries: Harris, Palamo, Pati
Convs: Lauti

Davenport 12
Tries: Cavanaugh, Eloff
Convs: Eloff