The Weber State University men’s basketball team has proven it twice now this season.
They are the best.
With the Big Sky Conference tournament title and a trip to the NCAA men’s basketball championship on the line, the Wildcats clawed their way to a 62-59 win against the University of Montana Grizzlies.
“We knew it would be a bloodbath going in. We knew it would be a physical game against a very physical basketball team. We had some opportunities, but we didn’t seize the moment,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said. “Weber State earned this one tonight, and the Griz will be cheering for them in the NCAA tournament as they represent the Big Sky Conference.”
The title is the 10th in Weber State history and the second title the team has won in the last three years. With the title in hand, the Wildcats are guaranteed a spot in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament beginning on March 17.
“It’s a lifelong dream going dancing, and it couldn’t be with any better people,” said sophomore Ryan Richardson of attending the Big Dance, a colloquialism used to refer to March Madness.
The Wildcats started out the first half making nine of their first 11 shots to give them a 26-14 lead less than 10 minutes into the game. After the high-scoring start to the game, Weber State struggled the rest of the way to halftime as they saw their lead drop to three points as the first half came to a close.
The second half saw multiple tied scores and lead changes as the Wildcats and Grizzlies both struggled to make their shots. With two minutes left in the game, the Wildcats clung to a 60-59 lead. The Wildcats and the Grizzlies combined to miss their next six shots before Weber State sophomore Dusty Baker blew past the Montana defense to score an uncontested layup to extend the Wildcats lead to three points.
The Grizzlies rushed down the court and junior Walter Wright made a last-second attempt at a 3-pointer, but the ball bounced off the rim at the buzzer to give the Wildcats the win and the title.
Entering the night, the Wildcats had lost five straight Big Sky tournament games to the Grizzlies and were 3-4 all-time against Montana when playing in the championship game.
“To be honest, it’s about time. They’ve been a little bit of a thorn in our side,” said WSU head coach Randy Rahe. “It’s about time that we ended up winning one of these games. I guess you could say we were due for one.”
Junior Jeremy Senglin led the Wildcats with 20 points and a game-high six assists. Senglin was named tournament MVP after he averaged 22.3 points per game during the tournament and made 23 of 47 shot attempts.
“Everybody was just ready to go and hyped up,” Senglin said. “Considering it was Montana and the championship game, if you weren’t ready to go, then something’s wrong with you.”
The Wildcats also had help on offense from sophomore Ryan Richardson, who finished second on the team with 15 points while shooting 3-5 from 3-point range.
“I’m really proud of their effort,” Rahe said. “I’m proud to be their coach, and I’m really happy for these guys to get the chance to celebrate.”
Rahe said he was especially happy for the returning members from last season’s team to get the conference title.
“What we had to go through last year was not easy, and those kids fought like crazy last year,” Rahe said. “We weren’t very happy with what happened last year, so I’m really happy for those guys that went through it, fought hard, got better all summer, stuck together and did what they did this year. To me that’s pretty special.”
Weber State is No. 15 in the East bracket and will be playing second-seeded Xavier on March 18 in St. Louis.
This will be the second trip to the NCAA tournament for Senglin, but to him, it doesn’t feel that way at all.
“It feels like the first time,” Senglin said. “Every time you win the championship, it’s a great feeling and I love winning. We love winning as a team and that’s what we do and that’s what we want to make this program known for.”