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As it does every year, the Weber State University men’s basketball team began the season setting goals. Every year, the Wildcats’ goal is to win the Big Sky Conference Championship and enter the NCAA Tournament. This year was the first time in seven years WSU accomplished that goal.
“I was really proud of our guys,” said WSU head coach Randy Rahe. “I think this team came as far and improved as much as any team I’ve had since I’ve been here. I’ve had some really close teams, as far as the chemistry. The chemistry of this team is probably the closest I’ve had. That really helped us keep fighting.”
The Wildcats came in as nearly unanimous favorites to win the conference. In five of the last six years, the Wildcats have been favored, but it was almost a unanimous No. 1 ranking this year. However, WSU had trouble establishing a rhythm right out of the gate.
“We started off with a really, really difficult schedule,” Rahe said. “Looking back on it now, it was probably too hard for our team at that point in time. We were trying to work some young guys into the program. With the tough games that we had, and not enough of them, we just weren’t making the kind of improvement that we needed to in the preseason.”
The Wildcats started the season 2-5 with losses to Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Colorado State University, Utah Valley University and the University of California, Los Angeles. With just eight games in eight weeks, the Wildcats didn’t have enough time to work out their issues before the conference season.
“We were struggling to get better as a team,” Rahe said, “struggling to find that cohesiveness and some rhythm. I was really proud of the kids, because even though we had some tough losses and played in some tough games, they just stayed the course and kept trying to get better.”
Limping into the conference season, the Wildcats were fortunate to have their first two games at the Dee Events Center. They came away with a seven-point win in their first game. The Wildcats began to find their footing in their second game.
“As we got into conference play, starting in January, as we started playing more consistently, we got a lot better,” Rahe said. “It was really rewarding to watch them grow and see how far they came.”
Then rough seas once again hit the Wildcats as they traveled to the University of Northern Colorado, one of the more veteran teams in the conference. The Wildcats lost by 19 points in their lowest-scoring game of the season — a game where the young players struggled.
“We showed (the freshmen) how to be leaders,” said WSU senior Davion Berry after the season. “We showed them to never quit. We could have quit this year. We’ve had some bumps. But us seniors, we kept our heads up. We kept the freshmen looking up to us.”
The lopsided loss sparked a rally. The Wildcats won their next six games, four of which were decided by eight or less points, including a grind-out five-point win over the University of Montana. The Wildcats lost five more games through the conference. Three of those losses came in overtime by fewer than four points, including two buzzer-beaters, one of them a 75-footer.
It wasn’t until the second-to-last game that the Wildcats found out they would host the Big Sky Tournament. They again faced UNC, finally getting the overtime win they had been searching for. They then cruised past the University of North Dakota for the championship.
The Wildcats earned a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They faced the University of Arizona, widely considered the best team in college basketball for a majority of the season. The Wildcats were underdogs by over 20 points.
The Wildcats trailed by that margin in the second half, but in the final eight minutes of the game, their grit and battle experience helped propel them to cut the lead down to just seven. The Wildcats became just the 15th No. 16 team out of 120 to be within single digits of their opponent at the end of the game. Rahe was quick to praise his players in the locker room after the game.
“He said he was proud of us,” said senior Jordan Richardson. “He was proud of our effort and loved us. He told the young guys that they’re going to be back. They’re going to be back and knock the door down.”
It wasn’t the ideal way to get to the Big Dance and to be able to hoist a championship banner, but the end goal was accomplished. For his seniors to end their season as champions, Rahe said, there was no better feeling. For his young players to be a part of the tough road, they are already battle-tested for the future.