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In a physical game that came down to the final minutes, the Weber State University men’s basketball team was able to win a tight game against Portland State University in the semifinal of the Big Sky Tournament.
After trailing for much of the game, WSU was able to knock off the Vikings 69-63.
Damian Lillard said the team struggled in the first half but was able to play through and bounce back.
“We made a lot of mistakes defensively, but we needed to get our minds right and win the game,” Lillard said. “. . . our team is extremely resilient. We’ve weathered the storm before.”
PSU jumped out to an early lead, going up 7-0 in the first four minutes of the game.
Scott Bamforth got things started for the Wildcats, hitting a midrange jumper to cut the Viking lead to five.
A minute later, Daren Mahoney hit a reverse layup to keep WSU within five points.
The Vikings were then able to frustrate the Wildcat offense early on with a zone defense.
WSU was able to adjust and thanks to a 3-pointer by Byron Fulton at the 11-minute mark, cut the Viking lead to two.
Once again PSU built their lead up, but Lillard chipped into the Viking lead with a deep 3-pointer to make it 18-14 at the midway point of the half.
The highlight of the first half for WSU came at the eight-minute mark of the half. He intercepted a PSU pass, drove the length of the court and converted a circus shot in which he changed direction mid air to keep the Wildcats within striking distance.
Fulton hit his second 3-pointer of the night to pull the ‘Cats within three of the Vikings with 6:50 remaining in the half.
Despite the pressure that WSU put up, the Vikings were able to keep their lead around five points for much of the first half and never trailed during the first frame of play.
Gelaun Wheelwright helped WSU in the first half for the Wildcats, contributing seven points off the bench for WSU.
The Wildcats finished the half with a higher shooting percentage, shooting 50 percent from the field, while the Vikings shot 48 percent, but PSU controlled the boards throughout the first half. The Vikings out rebounded WSU 16-9 in the first half.
In the second half, WSU tried to establish a stronger presence inside, going inside to Kyle Tresnak early on in the half.
Three minutes into the half, Bamforth hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give WSU its first lead of the game. The lead was short lived, and the Vikings were able to push their lead back to five with 15 minutes remaining.
PSU continued to extend its lead, going up 51-43 with 12:30 remaining.
In the latter stages of the second half, WSU was lifted by its bench. Jordan Richardson and Wheelwright came off the bench and gave the Wildcats a boost. Head Coach Randy Rahe said Richardson’s performance was crucial for the team.
“Jordan Richardson came in and gave us one hell of a life,” Rahe said.
Two quick buckets from Tresnak and Wheelwright cut the lead to four and kept WSU in the game.
With six minutes to go, Lillard pulled the Wildcats within one with a drive inside and a layup, but the Vikings answered back with a 3-pointer from Chehales Tapscott.
Wheelwright kept the score close when he exploded to the hoop to make it 60-58.
Wheelwright said he thought of the game as any other and didn’t get caught up in the hype of playing a semifinal game.
“I didn’t look at it (as a tournament game),” Wheelwright said. “I was just being aggressive.”
With three minutes left, Lillard tied the game at 62. After getting a loose ball, he drove down the court and hit the layup.
Wheelwright gave the Wildcats their second lead of the game with a layup at the two-minute mark.
With 39 seconds remaining, Charles Odum went to the line for PSU with a chance to tie the game at 64, Odum hit one of the two shots, giving WSU a one point lead.
On the ensuing possession, Lillard got to the line after being fouled. Lillard converted both shots from the line, giving WSU a three-point lead with 29 seconds remaining. PSU was unable to come back and fell to the Wildcats.
WSU will now face the winner of the other semifinal game between the University of Montana and Eastern Washington University. The championship game will take place on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.