I knew that if we'd keep working hard, we were gonna get 'em to miss. It's hard to beat a team three times, and it's hard to beat a talented team like that three times. I was real proud of our guys. —WSU head coach Randy Rahe
MISSOULA, Mont. — Super Tuesday wound up being a super-tense Tuesday for the Weber State men's basketball team.
But the Wildcats, trailing Portland State by nine points in the second half of Tuesday night's Big Sky Conference tournament semifinal, rallied behind the play of league MVP Damian Lillard and young reserve guards Gelaun Wheelwright and Jordan Richardson for a gritty 69-63 victory over the Vikings.
Tuesday's win, played at the University of Montana's Dahlberg Arena, sends the second-seeded Wildcats (24-5) into Wednesday night's tourney title game against the home-standing, top-seeded Grizzlies (24-6), who whipped the Wildcats here a week ago, 66-51, in their regular-season finale.
Montana reached the championship matchup with a 74-66 victory over Eastern Washington in Tuesday's second semifinal game.
Tipoff time is 7 p.m. in the nationally televised title matchup (ESPN2), with the winner grabbing the Big Sky's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
"It was a grinding game," WSU coach Randy Rahe said. "That was a pretty good example of what conference tournament games are like right there. We got off to a slow start and I didn't like our energy, I didn't like our aggressiveness. We just kind of hung in there.
"Our bench was huge for us tonight. Byron Fulton hit a couple of huge shots in the first half; Gelaun was huge, obviously, he played terrific, and I thought the difference in the game was Jordan. His defense sparked us, he hit the big 3 and he got two huge rebounds in traffic, which was huge for our team. I was really proud of him because he was ready to play in the second half after not playing in the first half.
"(The Vikings) were making some really tough, acrobatic shots at the rim and I kept telling the kids those shots are not going to go all night long," Rahe said. "I knew that if we'd keep working hard, we were gonna get 'em to miss. It's hard to beat a team three times, and it's hard to beat a talented team like that three times. I was real proud of our guys."
Things didn't look good for the Wildcats for quite awhile Tuesday evening.
The Vikings jumped out to an early 9-2 lead and, thanks to some slick 3-point shooting and a decisive rebounding advantage, still led 35-30 at halftime.
Then, after Scott Bamforth rattled in a 3-pointer to give WSU a 40-39 lead with 16:35 remaining, Portland State responded with a 10-0 run to take a 49-40 advantage at the 14-minute mark.
The Vikings still led by seven, 54-47, with nine-plus minutes left when Lillard, Wheelwright and Richardson combined forces as the Wildcats put together a 22-9 run down the stretch to pull out the come-from-behind win.
Lillard scored 13 of his 22 points during that decisive stretch, with Wheelwright and Richardson contributing the other nine points between them as Weber slipped past Portland State (17-14) for the third time this season.
Wheelwright wound up with 15 points, matching his career high, on 6-of-10 shooting. The freshman had two driving layups which were critical in the 'Cat comeback, including the go-ahead basket when he drove the baseline to make it 64-62 with 2:24 to go. The Wildcats never trailed again after that.
Kyle Tresnak added 10 points and a big blocked shot late in the game and Bamforth finished with nine points for WSU, which reached 24 wins for only the sixth time in school history.
Charles Odum led the Vikings with 24 points, but he missed a potential game-tying free throw with 39 seconds left. Chehales Tapscott added 19 points and 11 rebounds for Portland State, which has never beaten Weber State (0-5) in Big Sky tourney play.