Ravell Call, Deseret News
OGDEN — The Wildcats made a mighty strong statement Tuesday night.
And although it's much too soon to tell for sure, it was easy to sense what they were trying to say in their impressive 10-point victory over instate rival Utah State.
Yes, folks, Weber State just might have the best men's basketball team in the Beehive State this season.
Oh, sure, BYU will have plenty to say about it, too, before this thing's through, even though the Cougars have already been beaten by the Aggies. As for the University of Utah, well, maybe not so much.
But fueled by junior guard Scott Bamforth's career-best 28 points, the Wildcats shot past the Aggies for a slick 73-63 victory in front of 9,359 fired-up fans at the Dee Events Center.
"We think we can compete with any team in the state," said WSU junior point guard Damian Lillard, who missed most of last season with a broken bone in his foot. "The first thing we wanted to do is go out and try to knock people off because we know people see us as the underdogs in this state maybe. And now we feel like we're as good as anybody.
"We don't put ourselves above no other school in Utah, but if you put us on the court with them, we can compete with anybody."
Lillard added 17 points despite a subpar 4-of-16 shooting night, and he also had four assists and three steals. Sophomore forward Byron Fulton contributed 10 points and six rebounds for the Wildcats, and senior forward Kyle Bullinger chipped in eight points and 13 rebounds as the 'Cats improved to 2-0 on the young season — giving head coach Randy Rahe just his second win in eight career meetings with his former boss, USU head coach Stew Morrill.
Bamforth drilled 7-of-9 shots from 3-point range and 7-of-8 free throws but, oddly, missed all three of his two-point shots. He gave much of the credit for his superb outside shooting performance to the presence of Lillard.
"When you're playing with Damian, it opens things up so much," Bamforth said. "He's just a great player and everybody knows that. He knows the game and he's a great point guard, and it opens a lot of things up.
"He knows that if I'm out there, I know he's going to kick it so I'm just going to try and knock down the open shots and take good shots. The two-pointers, I work on those floaters all the time, but hopefully they'll start falling for me."
Bamforth also expressed confidence that the Wildcats could indeed be the state's best ballclub this season, and that they certainly aren't about to back down from anyone.
"We're the type of people and team — and it comes from Coach Rahe — that we don't put ourselves ahead of nobody, and say well, we're better than them, them, them, because you have to play the game," he said. "We truly feel like we can play with anybody, anyone in the state of Utah and any other school. We have that confidence because I think we practice hard and we all work on our game individually to make us a better team.
"Obviously, Weber State is looked at as the third-best school in Utah. I think, personally, we've always had a chip on our shoulder because we've always been looked at as the underdog and we haven't been recruited a lot or whatever. So I think we do have a chip on our shoulder and then as a team, yeah, we always do. But the good teams always do that and that's how they win."
For Utah State (1-1), senior forward Morgan Grim had 19 points and seven rebounds, while senior guard Brockeith Pane added 14 points and senior forward/center Brady Jardine had nine points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
The two teams played on even terms through the first six minutes before Bamforth and Lillard went on a 3-point shooting barrage in a 24-9 run that turned an 11-11 tie into a 35-20 Weber State lead.
The Wildcats maintained that 15-point margin at halftime, 42-27, and led by as many as 18 points at 57-39 before the Aggies began battling back.
A 14-5 USU run cut the gap to single digits, 62-53, with 6:53 remaining, and the Aggies kept chipping away until they pulled within six points, 67-61, on a putback dunk by Jardine with 2:21 left.
But the 'Cats avoided a late-game collapse, as Bamforth and Lillard combined for six free throws in the final minute to put it out of Utah State's reach down the stretch.
"They deserve all the credit," Morrill said of the Wildcats. "They're a really good basketball team and we're quite a ways away from being a very good basketball team.
"The way they shot the ball in the first half was amazing, and Bamforth had an unbelievable night. ... I thought Weber was really good tonight. We knew coming down here was going to be a tough one.
"Weber deserves nothing but all the credit. We got thumped," he said. "They've got a great basketball team."
And maybe, just maybe, the best one in the state this season.
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