RENO — The defending tournament champions quite literally could not miss in the first half, yet could not distance themselves from the pesky Thunderbirds.
In the second half, Weber State did not shoot nearly as well as it did during a nearly flawless offensive half against Southern Utah. But the Wildcats buckled down, made life tough on SUU star guard Randy Onwuasor and finally pulled away to earn a spot in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference tournament here in Thursday’s fourth and final game.
Despite shooting 71 percent in the first half, Weber State led by just six points at halftime and by just two with 18 minutes left. From that point, the Wildcats used balance and stingy defense to bury the upstart in-state rivals from Southern Utah.
Weber State outscored Southern Utah 46-28 over the last 18 minutes to cruise to a 90-70 victory. The win is Weber’s 18th this season and helps the Wildcats advance to the tournament semifinals.
“Defense is what it was,” WSU senior Jeremy Senglin, the reigning tournament MVP, said after a 24-point performance. “That’s what coach (Randy Rahe) is always emphasizes. We are not too worried about offense. We let that come to us. Defense is what we needed to pick up in the first half. That’s how we were able to get that lead.”
WSU will need to get past No. 2 seed Eastern Washington if it hopes to earn a shot in Saturday’s championship game and its fourth NCAA Tournament berth under 11th-year head coach Randy Rahe.
Southern Utah carried the momentum, at least offensively, of its first-round win Monday night. Onwuasor scored a tournament-record 43 points to lift SUU to a 109-105 triple-overtime win, its first-ever tournament victory. Thursday, the Big Sky’s last-place team hung with the conference’s premier program for 22 minutes before Weber’s physical defense on Onwuasor and Rahe’s defensive adjustments helped bury the Thunderbirds.
“They came in tonight playing really loosey goosey after a great win,” Rahe said. “I knew they would be loose and just go play and we got exactly what we thought we would from them. They were on a little bit of a role. We knew it was going to be a fight, we knew we had to do certain things well. It was a good ball game to have.”
Southern Utah’s season ends at 6-27. The Thunderbirds lost 15 of 16 league contests entering the tournament only to toppled the Bobcats, a team that won 10 of 12 before their season abruptly ending. In Todd Simon’s first season, the roster only featured 10 eligible scholarship players.
“A lot of people saw what we can really do,” SUU junior James McGee said after scoring 20 points. “We were playing our best basketball of the year at the right time. We are ready to get back to the lab to have a better season than we did this year.”
Weber hit 17 of its first 21 shots, including eight of its first nine attempts from beyond the arc. Senglin hit 3-pointers on three straight possessions to give the third-seeded Wildcats a 15-5 lead early on. Senglin, the reigning tournament MVP, scored 16 points in the first half and his fourth 3-pointer stretched WSU’s lead to 37-25 with five minutes until halftime.
“Good looks, great screens by the teammates and everyone was sharing the ball,” Senglin said. “Good ball movement, everyone was getting from the first side to the second side. No one was hogging the ball. We were playing as a team.”
But Onwuasor continued to barrel down hill, helping keep the Thunderbirds hang tough despite Weber scorching the nets. The 6-foot-3 former Texas Tech transfer, scored 15 points in the first half, including six points in the final four minutes of the first half as the Wildcats took just a 44-38 advantage into the locker room. Onwuasor hit a layup off a lop pass at the buzzer to help SUU keep the deficit management.
Weber State missed its last three shots of the first half and its first three shots of the second half. Onwuasor’s 3-pointer to begin the second half cut the WSU lead to 44-42. Senglin picked up his third foul with 15:51 remaining, leading to a James McGee free throw that cut the Weber lead to 51-47. Senglin re-entered the game with 12 minutes left and the Wildcats up 57-51. The two-time first-team All-Big Sky selection then took over.
Senglin snared a defensive rebound and promptly drilled a 3-pointer in transition. McGee, who finished with 20 points, answered but Senglin’s old-fashioned 3-point play on the next possession pushed the lead to double digits, 63-53 with nine minutes left. Senglin’s last two points came at the free throw line to give WSU a 71-55 lead with seven mintutes left. Rahe rested his star for the rest of the game.
“He wanted to go back in. He told me, ‘I’m ready’ and I said, ‘I know you are ready but you are not going back in,” Rahe said. “This guy has so much energy. Hell, he probably won’t sleep tonight because he didn’t play 35 minutes. But any little bit of rest you can get helps.”
Weber State sophomore center Zach Braxton found position on the block early on, helping Weber’s offensive execution by giving the Wildcats an inside scoring option to open up outside shots. But Southern Utah hammered Braxton three times and Braxton missed all six of his first half free throws. In the second half, Braxton continued to get position, SUU continued to foul but Braxton stepped to the stripe with confidence. He hit 5-of-6 free throws after intermission and scored 15 points overall.
“They didn’t double team like some of the other teams in our conference do,” Braxton said. “I credit my teammates. They were looking to get me the ball all night.”
Weber reserve Dusty Baker nailed two 3-pointers in the first half, then showed his ability as a driver and facilitator after halftime during a 15-point performance. His 3-point play pushed WSU’s lead to 68-55 and garnered enthusiasm from Weber’s bench. Baker also hit all seven of his free throws as WSU hit 19-of-22 at the stripe in the second half after shooting just 2-of-8 in the first frame.
“I missed my first six (free throws) and I was like, ‘Wow, we haven’t done that in awhile,’” Braxton said. “I’ve been working on them a lot but I talked to McKay at halftime and he goes, ‘you are going to make four of your next six so stay confident.’ They ended up going in in the second half.
Onwuasor shot 25 free throws against Montana State. The junior converted 20 of them. On Thursday, Onwuasor scored 29 points in 40 minutes but managed just two strips to the stripe, making all four of his freebies. He finished the tournament with 72 total points, just one shy of the all-time tournament record.
Weber State will have to get past Eastern Washington for a chance at another trip to the Big Dance. The Eagles beat Sac State handily 89-70. EWU is led by Big Sky MVP Jake Wiley.
“They are good,” Rahe said. “They are big, they are long. They play a different style than most teams in our league. They basically play isolation basketball and they put their best players in positions to be successful and say, ‘Ok, now you have to guard us.’ They have had a good year, they have good players, they can shoot it, they play inside-out. It’s a good matchup, one we are really looking forward to.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.