Weber State basketball: Bench play helps Wildcats stay unbeaten in Big Sky
Ravell Call, Deseret News
OGDEN — Damian Lillard was the same reliable super star and Scott Bamforth hit some huge shots at just the right time.
But it was the contributions of the Weber State bench that helped the Wildcats win the battle of undefeated Big Sky teams Saturday night at the Dee Events Center by a score of 80-64.
"I thought the key to the game potentially was our bench play in the first half, when we got Byron (Fulton), (Gelaun) Wheelright and Bull (Kyle Bullinger) and Mook (Frank Otis) all stepped in and really contributed," said head coach Randy Rahe. "That was big to our team to get that kind of production off of the bench. Very proud of our bench and the way they responded."
The game was a battle until about seven minutes left in the first half when Byron Fulton hit a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 27-21 lead. Then freshman Gelaun Wheelwright hit a 3-pointer and tipped in a miss to give Weber it's first double-digit lead, 35-25.
Meanwhile the Wildcat defense played a little tougher on the other end. Otis hit a jump shot to extend the lead to 39-27 at 4:41 in the first half.
Both players and coaches said they discussed that the only way to put space between the Grizzlies and themselves was to play harder on defense and in the paint.
"We were executing really well," said Lillard, who remains the nation's leading scorer, averaging 25.5 points per game. "They were executing really well, and we came into the media time out and (coaches) said, 'We have to get stops.' And that was the bottom line; we had to get stops. We started to play a little bit harder, communicate a little bit more and we were able to come up with some stops and come up with some rebounds."
The effort resulted in a 49-36 halftime lead.
Rahe praised all of his players for their effort, focus and poise, but singled out Otis, as it was his first game back after missing nine games due to a knee injury.
"Mook was terrific," he said, referring to Otis by his nickname. "He had a great calmness about him, which was surprising for not playing for five weeks, six weeks. He looked confident; he played in rhythm, which was really good. … But for the first game back, to come back and play with that kind of confidence, I thought it spoke volumes for him."
Lillard moved up the all-time scorers list to fourth-place after leading all players with 21 points. He also had four assists and five rebounds. Bamforth finished with 15 points and three assists, and he hit three 3-pointers, including one in the second half that stole the momentum of Montana's comeback effort.
"We knew they were going to make a run," said Bamforth. "They're a good team. … But you never plan for it. You try not to let it happen, but it happened and we just tried to stick together. I don't remember the exact play, but someone probably made a good pass to me and I was able to make the shot."
Rahe said that 3-point shot Bamforth made with 8:03 left in the game was key. It gave Weber a 68-57 lead and, more importantly, it stole the energy from the Grizzlies.
"We just got to find a way to weather the storm," Lillard said. "That's just a sign of a mature basketball team and we get more mature everyday so it worked in our favor."
For Montana, Will Cherry finished with a team-high 15 points, while Mathias Ward added 8 points and 12 rebounds. Kareem Jamar scored 11 points and Art Steward added nine points before fouling out with just over 16 minutes left in the second half.
Kyle Tresnak scored 12 points for Weber, while Darin Mahoney had a solid game with eight points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots.
"I was really proud of our kids,' Rahe said. "They were ready to play and they were excited to play obviously. Came out with a really good mindset, a determined mindset, a hungry mindset. We knew it was going to be a really tough game; Montana is a really good team. We have a lot of respect for them."
Despite winning the battle of unbeatens, Lillard said the team won't get too caught up in the victory.
"It feels good to beat a good team," said Lillard. "We're atop the Big Sky right now, but we don't look at it that way. We just look at our next game as in we need another win. … It's going to be different every game as to how we win. But we just want to keep getting the next game. We don't look at our record, we just try to focus on the next game."
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