The Weber State University men’s basketball team spent many early mornings, late nights and countless hours in the gym all in preparation for one game, one moment that some of the greatest players have never had a chance to do: playing in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats entered Friday’s match-up with the University of Arizona ready to put forth their best efforts and try to shock the world.
A win against UA would have been the Wildcats’ first victory over the program Lute Olson built. It would also have been the first time in NCAA Tournament history that a 16th seed dethroned the No. 1 seed.
After a hot start and a frantic comeback, the Wildcats fell just short, 68-59 — a score that puts the Wildcats in elite company, as they were only one of 15 16th seeds to lose by single digits.
“It hurts because, believe it or not . . . we came in expecting to win. We were trying to win,” said WSU head coach Randy Rahe. “I’m proud of our guys; they did a tremendous job.”
UA head coach Sean Miller said he knew heading into the match-up that his team would have its hands full.
“Weber is one of the best teams we’ve played all season,” Miller said. “We played some of the great teams in college basketball, and I don’t care what the name of their conference or what they say on their shirt.”
WSU was playing against one of the toughest defenses in the country, which includes perennial lottery pick Aaron Godson. Davion Berry finished his impressive college career scoring 24 points on 10-10 from the free-throw line. Joel Bolomboy notched his 11th double-double of the year with 11 points and 16 rebounds. Richaud Gittens led the Wildcat bench with 12 points.
“We talked about Bolomboy before the game,” Miller said. “I feel like he’s an NBA player. We have not faced a player who is a better offensive rebounder than him. Someone said, moving forward, it’s only going to get tougher in the post. I don’t believe that. I think Weber State’s two post players are about as good as you can get when you consider how big they are. They have a center who can score in the low post as well as any player we have scouted.”
Berry, the Big Sky Player of the Year, found it hard to find baskets early on in the game as UA’s big men controlled the paint, blocking a season-high 12 shots. But that didn’t stop him from trying to get his team back into the mix of the game.
“They play good defense,” Berry said. “I just didn’t really make shots in the first half. Coach told me to keep my head up and just believe and keep being aggressive. Shots started to fall.”
After jumping out to a 7-0 lead, which had the WSU supporters ready to blow the roof off the Viejas Arena, UA composed itself and got back into the game. The UA Wildcats held WSU to 25 percent shooting for the first half, while they shot 50 percent.
The WSU Wildcats found their groove late in the second half, after they had fallen behind by as much as 21. But Gittens, the freshman who has provided valuable minutes all year, gave hope to the WSU hopeful. A jumper combined with a steal and layup gave the team a sense of urgency and momentum.
WSU closed the gap to as small as seven points, but Nick Johnson, Pac-12 Player of the Year, put the nail in the coffin with a 3-pointer with a hand in his face.
The loss ended the WSU Wildcats’ season, in which they won both the regular and Big Sky Conference championships, with a record of 19-12.