OGDEN — For a postseason men's basketball game that not many fans took much of an interest in, this one sure had a fun, furious finish.
A sparse but vocal crowd of 2,334 showed up for Tuesday night's Weber State-Utah Valley clash in the first round of the Collegeinsider.com Tournament. And after a somewhat sluggish, ragged first half, those fans in attendance were treated to a dandy duel down the stretch which the Wildcats barely wound up winning, 72-69, at the Dee Events Center.
Weber State junior guard Scott Bamforth hit two clutch free throws with 9.5 seconds left to make it a three-point game, and UVU's Holton Hunsaker missed a potential game-tying 3-point attempt just before the final buzzer to send the Wolverines home from their first postseason tournament since they became a Division I program.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, earned their first postseason tournament win since knocking off North Carolina in a memorable 1999 NCAA Tournament shocker.
Their second-round CIT game will be played on Friday or Saturday against an opponent and at a site still to be determined following the conclusion of tonight's other first-round games.
"All we want to do is try to keep playing," said WSU coach Randy Rahe, whose team improved to 25-6 — just the sixth time in school history that a Wildcat team has won 25 or more games — and 16-0 at home this season. "We just want to play as many games as we can. These guys like to play basketball and they like to be around each other. They've had a helluva season and they deserve to keep playing as much as they can."
Junior guard Damian Lillard led the Wildcats with 21 points and five assists; Bamforth scored all 16 of his points in the second half and also had five assists and four rebounds, and senior forward Kyle Bullinger, one of two WSU seniors likely playing their final game on their home court, added nine points on the strength of three 3-pointers.
"Any time you make it to the postseason, you're just thankful because there's a lot of teams that didn't get a chance," said Lillard, who's likely headed for this year's NBA draft once Weber State's postseason run ends. "I think it would've been foolish of us to get to this point and then not prove ourselves worthy of being in the NIT, because we felt like we could've played in another (higher-profile) tournament. I think it would've been foolish for us to come out and not prove ourselves worthy and come out and take a loss at home.
"We've still got a reason to play, and every time you play you want to compete and win the game, and we just want to keep winning games."
Bamforth wholeheartedly agreed with his talented teammate.
"We're just glad to be in a position to play another game, another day," he said. "You never want your season to end, no matter what you're playing in.
"I mean, a game is a game. We're all on scholarship to play basketball, so that's what we want to do and want to do it until we can't do it no more.
"I was put in an opportunity by my teammates to make a play, and I just had to," Bamforth said of his second-half scoring spree. "It was nothing different. I just had a couple more opportunities this time and I was able to take advantage of it."
Weber State's other senior, Darin Mahoney, had six rebounds, two slick second-half assists that helped fuel a 16-3 Weber State surge and three steals, including a huge one with 16 seconds left that set the stage for Bamforth's late free throws that gave the 'Cats their three-point edge.
"That's just what he does," Rahe said of Mahoney, a former Wasatch High standout. "He's been doing that all year for us. He helped us get some rhythm offensively when he made a couple of really nice passes that allowed us to get a couple of easy baskets.
"... The thing that I was most happy with 'Mo' about was there were a time there when there were four of five loose balls under their basket, and he came up with every single one of them. If they get those loose balls, obviously they get some momentum. And that's what he does; he gets you extra possessions, he came up with some big loose balls there and obviously the play at the end when he was able to come up with that steal. That's basically in a nutshell what Darin does. He played really, really well, scoring two points and he had a huge effect on the game, like he does a lot."
Senior guard Isiah Williams scored a game-high 26 points and also had seven rebounds for Utah Valley (20-13), which valiantly battled back from a 13-point deficit in the second half to tie the game twice in the final two minutes. Ben Aird added 13 points, Keith Thompson contributed 10 points and eight rebounds, and Geddes Robinson grabbed a game-high 11 boards for the Wolverines.
"We've got a group that fights and competes and has throughout the season, and the last game of their (seniors') career was no different," said UVU coach Dick Hunsaker, a former Weber State player and assistant coach. "... We never gave up the competitive attitude.
"We're a decent little team. We've lost some ballgames, but we are a respectable little club for who we are. We have some competitive guys and I put six guys out there who will compete. They've done that all year.
"They've hung in there in every ballgame they've been in throughout the course of the entire season.
"... I think it shows and speaks well of the kids in our program and how hard we work and shows that we can be a competitive team and a competitive institution," Hunsaker said. "... They never cashed it in, and they made some plays. I was real pleased with the way the kids fought. We showed who we are on a postseason stage."