OGDEN — Damian Lillard always seems to draw a crowd, whether it's opposing defenders, media members or professional basketball observers.
But on Thursday night, when eight NBA scouts were on hand at the Dee Events Center to see the Weber State star in action, the junior guard struggled through an icy shooting night that was nearly as cold as the sub-freezing weather outside — 4-for-14, including a 2-of-6 night from 3-point range.
Heck, the 90-percent foul shooter even missed once from the foul line, finishing with "only" 17 points — nearly 10 less than his 25.8-point average that leads the nation.
And guess what? It really didn't matter much at all.
Teammates Scott Bamforth and Byron Fulton picked up the slack, Lillard still made big plays when his team needed him most and the Wildcats overcame 33-percent shooting as a team to turn back Montana State, 63-49, for their seventh straight victory.
"That's just a sign of being a good team when everything doesn't go your way and you still find a way to win," said Lillard, last week's national player of the week whose average slipped by a half-point with Thursday night's sub-par performance. "It just shows that we're starting to get better as a team and maturing as a team and the fact that we don't have to make every single shot to be able to come out on top."
Weber State is now 9-0 at home, 13-3 overall and 5-0 in Big Sky Conference play heading into Saturday's showdown with the University of Montana (11-5, 4-0).
Bamforth wound up with a game-high 20 points, although he was just 4-of-11 from beyond the arc. When asked what it meant for he and his teammates to win by a double-digit margin despite their frosty shooting, Bamforth looked at it as a good indicator of his team's fierce competitive desire.
"It just says we fight," he said. "We know we're never gonna shoot the ball great every night. There's going to be those nights when you don't shoot the ball well, and great teams find a way to win.
"Even if we do shoot well, it comes down to us playing hard, and if we don't play hard and aren't ready to play every night, anyone can beat us and every team in the league can beat us, They are capable of beating us, so we have to come out ready to play."
Along with his 17 points, just the fourth time this season he's scored less than 20, Lillard contributed six rebounds and three steals for the Wildcats.
Fulton added 11 points and 13 rebounds for his first career double-double, giving the Wildcats a big lift off the bench, and those 13 boards marked a career-best for the 6-foot-7 sophomore forward. It came at a good time for a Weber State squad which welcomed back senior forward Kyle Bullinger, who missed the previous nine games with dislocated elbow, but was without freshman center James Hajek, who dislocated his knee last weekend against Portland State and will likely be sidelined for 4-6 weeks.
"James is out for a few games now so we need the bigs to step up and get more rebounds now," Fulton said. "He was a big key to our rebounding, and I was just trying to be aggressive on the glass and let that lead my game."
Weber State built an early nine-point lead at 18-9, but the Bobcats (7-8, 2-2) battled back to tie things up 27-all at halftime.
After intermission, though, Bamforth's 10 points ignited a 12-2 WSU run that gave the Wildcats some breathing room. Then after MSU pulled back within a point, Lillard, Fulton, Kyle Tresnak and Darin Mahoney took turns lighting the scoreboard as Weber State staged a 20-8 scoring spree that pushed the lead back out to double digits, and the 'Cats were never threatened again.
WSU coach Randy Rahe pointed out that the first game back after a road trip — the Wildcats swept games at Eastern Washington and Portland State last week — is often a tough one for teams to win because they have a tendency to relax when they're playing back home again.1 comment on this story
"When you're on the road, you're on such a high edge, and our kids really were last weekend," Rahe said. "And I thought we came out and we didn't have the edge, we didn't have that same focus. And I think sometimes it's human nature.
"Montana State came in ready to play, very aggressive. They're a good physical team and they can rebound it, and I thought they caused us some problems, too. I didn't like our mindset and at halftime we talked about it. Sometimes it's hard in the middle of the game to get it back.
"But I was really proud of our kids in the second half, because they got that mindset going, they got that toughness back and a little bit of focus and it showed," said Rahe, whose team committed just six turnovers. "We held them to 30 percent shooting and outrebounded them in the second half and kind of turned the tide a little bit. And we were able to make enough shots to pull away. ... You shoot 33 percent and still win the game, you'll take it, but obviously it goes back to how well we defended and how well we rebounded, especially in the second half. And when shots aren't going in, you've got to find another way to get it done and the kids really did that the second half."