RENO, Nevada — Northern Arizona threw a trapping defense at Northern Colorado to take the ball out of Andre Spight’s hands in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament.
The following day, UNC’s first-team All-Big Sky combo guard spent most of his time in bed with battling sickness.
On Thursday, Spight may have had a rising temperature but that didn’t deter the Bears from shattering the thermometer with the most dominant performance of the week thus far in Reno.
Spight scored 13 points in the first 10 minutes of the game, nearly doubling up fourth-seeded Weber State all by himself as his fifth-seeded Bears raced out to a 19-7 lead. The Arizona State transfer poured in 17 of his game-high 25 points as Northern Colorado built a 16-point halftime lead and the upstart Bears never let off the gas on the way to an 80-55 victory over the Wildcats that was never in question.
“’Dre, probably the best move he made, probably the best move the coaching staff was allow Dre to be the coach yesterday because Dre was in bed all day yesterday sick,” UNC second-year head coach Jeff Linder said with a smile. “He was getting a lot of extra rest. Dre was able to get a little bit better, he’s a gamer and he understood from the last time we played them, he did a great job of not messing around. He just went downhill, which changed the game.”
Spight, the Newcomer of the Year in the league after averaging more than 24 points per game in league competition, saw a trapping defense from NAU in the first round of the tournament. He morphed from scorer to facilitator to lead the Bears into the quarterfinals with an 82-69 win despite scoring just 12 points. Then he the following day sleeping and recovering to prepare for the Wildcats.
He showed no ill effects on Thursday.
“Honestly, it’s just the flow of the game and what the other team gives me,” Spight said. “It was a great team effort. It was a great game plan by him and we just followed it.”
In the third year of playing a neutral site tournament, the Big Sky has seen very few blowouts on either the women’s or men’s sides of its postseason. Just earlier this week, North Dakota overcame a 19-point second half deficit to defeat Montana State in the first round of the men’s tournament while the Idaho State women rallied out of a 25-point second half hole to outlast Weber State in overtime.
In Thursday’s second quarterfinal, Northern Colorado left no double, pushing the lead to as big as 29 points, 61-32, when senior Anthony Johnson drilled one of UNC’s 10 3-pointers with 10:24 to play. The margin stayed at 24 points or more for the rest of the second half as UNC punched a ticket in Friday’s semifinal against top-seeded Montana.
“It’s a lot easier when you get used to the rims and then come out and play a really good team your second game,” UNC guard Jonah Radebaugh said. “I thnk that game earlier really got us going and we were really comfortable coming into this one.”
Weber State sports the league’s youngest roster. Veteran 12th-year head coach Randy Rahe, a five-time winner of the league’s Coach of the Year award, played just seven players in his rotation, including true freshmen Doc Nelson and Michal Kozak on a roster that includes just seniors Ryan Richardson and Dusty Baker.
The Wildcats overcame the loss of Jeremy Senglin to the NBA, the loss of Cody John to a season-ending injury and endured a brutal schedule that included seven of their final 11 games on the road to post the seventh 20-win season under Rahe.
“We got in a bad way and it snowballed to be honest with you, which effected both sides of the floor,” Rahe said. “I’m real proud of this team. This one is tough but overall, I’m proud of what this team has accomplished.
“I couldn’t have had more fun coaching a basketball team. You don’t lose a game like this very often. It doesn’t happen very often. But that does not take away from what this team accomplished. We are the youngest team in the league. We played seven guys, won 20 games, won 13 league games and battled their tails off.”
WSU won 10 straight games, including besting North Dakota and Northern Colorado in overtime. Eastern Washington and Idaho swept the Wildcats in Ogden to end the streak, then Montana obliterated Weber in Missoula to help the Griz sew up the outright league championship.
Weber needed 46 points from sophomore All-Big Sky guard Jerrick Harding to rally for an overtime win over Montana State in Bozeman before sputtering into the tournament as the No. 4 seed despite clinching a first-round bye three weeks before the tournament began.
“I think we’ve been getting a little low on juice,” Rahe said. “This is not where we wanted to be three weeks ago but our guys came out ready to play. I thought it was more Northern Colorado what they did to us.”
On Thursday, the Wildcats appeared out of gas. The Bears allowed the top 3-point shooting team in the league to hit just four triples in 14 attempts, including just one in the first half. Northern Colorado limited Harding, the Big Sky’s leading scorer, to just six points in the first 32 minutes of the game. Harding finished strong down the stretch to get himself to 18 points, but none of his buckets cut the lead to any less than 17 points.
“We didn’t come out with enough energy,” Harding said. “We have been working hard all season. Our bodies are holding up good and we didn’t expect to lose this game.
Brekkot Chapman, a former Utah transfer, scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds but UNC dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Wildcats 42-29. The Bears shot 54.2 percent after halftime and 52 percent overall, drilling 10-of-16 from beyond the arc. Spight hit three of his four shots from deep and Radebaugh hit five of six from deep to finish with 20 points.
The UNC victory is the first over Rahe for Linder, an assistant on Rahe’s staff at Weber State Rahe’s first three seasons in Ogden. Linder had lost his first four matchups as a head coach to the Wildcats by a combine 12 points.
“As a head coach, it’s just a relief,” Linder said. “As a head coach, you can get a lot of really crazy into your head. It was great playing against a guy who is a great friend and a mentor, a guy who gave me my first opportunity at the Division I level. You never want to play against friends, you never want to beat friends but I am glad to get the monkey off my back.”
Northern Colorado will try to become the first team that did not receive a first-round bye to earn a spot in the tournament championship game. The Bears lost by nine in both match ups to Montana during the regular-season but remain confident given the two most complete performances in this year’s tournament thus far.
“I think we match up well, it’s just a matter of playing our game better than they do,” Radebaugh said. “We have to guard. Every game comes down to playing defense so if we can guard them and stop them inside, it should be a really good game.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.