USU (13-2-6), the first WAC back-to-back champions since 2003-2004, made a stunning Denver own goal in the fourth minute hold up for the full 90 minutes in a tight, physical struggle that placed a premium on defensive play.
"I'm not going to lie," said USU defender and tournament MVP Natalie Norris. "The second half was the most intense soccer I've ever played.
"Our goal was to keep them out of the back of the net."
And they did, an accomplishment considering the Pioneers' offensive firepower. Denver (15-2-4) came into the championship with a 19-game unbeaten run and 45 total goals.
The Pioneers had been shut out only twice during the season including a scoreless draw in Denver with USU.
"It's tough when you score the first goal for them," Denver coach Jeff Hooker said. "We did what we needed to do in the second half. They seemed to get a piece of everything."
Utah State, which counterattacked when possible, was content to sit back and absorb pressure and rely on keeper Ashlyn Mulford. Norris, Taryn Rose and Jackie Tillotson were constantly using a foot, leg or head front and back to clear shots out of their 18-yard box.
During a rough-and-tumble stretch midway through the second half, Tillotson twice deflected shots headed straight for the back of the net.
"That's championship soccer," Cairns said. "That's what a championship effort is. Get a toe on it, a leg on it, anything."
The game's lone score came with USU's leading scorer Jennifer Flynn pressuring Denver goalkeeper Lara Campbell. Cassidy Larson tried to clear but toe-poked the ball into her own net.
"Our goal was to get back to the NCAA Tournament," Norris said.
• Utah State is the first team to win back-to-back WAC soccer championships since 2003 and 2004.
• USU players Jennifer Flynn, Jackie Tillotson, Ashlyn Mulford, Taryn Rose were all-tournament selections. Natalie Norris was tournament MVP.
• Denver entered the championship game riding a 19-game unbeaten streak.