RENO, Nevada — The Big Sky Conference champions spent their first three days in Reno taking in the action. By the time their first game rolled around, the Wildcats were more than ready to play. But Weber State was weary of an upset after watching a wild Wednesday of action in the Biggest Little City in the World.
Weber State executed its offense efficiently early, posting 11 assists on 15 field goals, including eight 3-pointers in the first half to take a 46-37 lead over eight-seeded Portland State. Weber, the top seed in the Big Sky Tournament, looked like it would cruise but the Vikings cranked up the defensive pressure, flustering the Wildcats and forcing a barrage of turnovers in going on a momentum-swinging run to set up another down to the wire quarterfinal.
During Wednesday’s four women’s quarterfinals, two games were decided on buzzer beaters and the total margin of victory in the four games was 11 points. Top seed Montana State lost to ninth-seeded Idaho State in the first quarterfinal of the day on a last-second shot.
Portland State’s 13-2 spurt thanks to five WSU turnovers gave the Vikings their first lead of the game more than 31 minutes into the action. With Big Sky MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Joel Bolomboy battling foul trouble, All-Big Sky guard Jeremy Senglin took over down the stretch. The junior guard scored seven of Weber’s final 10 points as the Wildcats avoided the upset with a 78-74 win in the first game of Thursday’s quarterfinal slate.
“You know what they say about March and tournaments: you just have to survive and advance and that’s all we care about,” WSU head coach Randy Rahe said. “We played really well in the first half and we played well for spurts in the second half but we had a five or six minutes where we didn’t take care of the ball and it got them back in it. What good teams do is you find a way to make plays when things aren’t going your way and that’s exactly what we did.”
Senglin’s 3-pointer with three minutes, 10 seconds to play gave Weber the lead. Portland State forward De’Sean Parsons answered with four straight points to give PSU a 74-72 lead with 1:54 left. Ryan Richardson’s free throw and Senglin’s acrobatic finish in the lane gave Weber a 75-74 lead with 32 seconds left.
“I threw it up and it went in,” said Senglin, a first-team All-Big Sky guard who finished with 16 points. “My teammates gave me a good lane to get open. You don’t think about the pressure because that’s when you mess up. We didn’t think about that.”
After Senglin’s acrobatic finish, PSU went to Parsons, who finished with 18 points, once again. He got good position but Bolomboy came from the backside for a huge block. Senglin was whistled for an offensive foul on the other end as he tried for two straight wild finishes in the lane, giving PSU one more shot trailing by one. Portland State threw the ball into senior power forward Cameron Forte — “I’d throw it to him at the hotel, I’d throw it to him at the airport, I’d throw it to him anywhere,” Rahe joked — but WSU freshman McKay Cannon swooped in and stripped PSU’s All-Big Sky big man. Richardson knocked down two free throws with 10.8 second remaining, Donivine Stewart missed two freebies for the Vikings and the upset bid fell just short.
“We sent McKay down, told him to go double him,” Rahe said. “We hadn’t doubled him much all game. He’s really good. But our big guys battled him. We did not want him to beat us.”
Forte, a left-handed graduate transfer from Georgia, finished with 25 points and seven rebounds. He scored at will throughout, converting 12-of-19 field goals.
“They trapped like that in the first half but I got fouled,” Forte said. “I was ready to get it and get the score right there but the whistle didn’t go our way. It was a foul.”
Despite Bolomboy playing just six minutes in the first half due to two cheap early fouls, the Wildcats showed their depth and their crisp offensive approach. Richardson, a sophomore, and Cannon each hit three of their four shots from beyond the arc and each scored 11 first-half points. With Bolomboy riding the bench, freshman center Zach Braxton picked up the slack, converting all three of his first-half shots and scored 10 points before intermission.
In the second half, the script flipped. Employing an athletic, quick lineup with long guards Isaiah Pineiro and Parsons playing in the frontcourt alongside Forte with Calaen Robinson and Stewart in the backcourt, PSU forced 10 second-half turnovers, a key element in the comeback.
“We were just getting stops,” Parsons said. “We knew after the first half, we had to play defense. We were trying to get Bolomboy into foul trouble. You can’t take him out the game completely unless you get him in foul trouble so that was the plan. But it wasn’t enough.”
Portland State entered the game having won five of its last six, including a 74-67 win over Northern Colorado in the first round of the tournament on Monday. PSU’s comfort with the Reno Special Events Center coupled with Weber’s apparent first-game jitters helped make the 1-8 matchup into a tight one.
“I kind of wanted to play Weber in their first game because I thought it made a different,” PSU head coach Ty Geving said. “Getting a game under your belt and kids being on the court in a new facility played to our advantage. Unfortunately, they hit eight 3s in the first half so that went out the window at first. But it does make a little bit of a difference on the first day because I’m sure they had to get the butterflies out.”
Richardson led the Weber State offense with a career-high 21 points, including a 3-pointer to tie the game at 65 with less than four minutes to play and the game-sealing free throws. He hit 7-of-9 shots overall, including 5-of-7 from beyond the arc.
“Man, this is fun,” Richardson said. “I’m just thankful that I have the opportunity to play. I’m so blessed to be in this situation with these guys. They are like my brothers. In pressure situations, I know that they have my back and I have their back. That’s all we need.”
Bolomboy (12), Braxton (12) and Cannon (11) ensured all five Weber starters finished in double figures. Robinson scored 13 points and Zach Gengler scored 11 as PSU put four in double figures as well.
Weber State advances to play the winner of No. 4 Idaho State and No. 5 North Dakota. The Wildcats are chasing their 10th trip to the NCAA Tournament, including their third under Rahe.
“In March, it doesn’t matter if it’s pretty or ugly, it just doesn’t matter,” Rahe said. “We advance to tomorrow. That’s all we care about.”