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Randy Hollis: Wildcats' great player Damian Lillard, great season still fell short of goal

Published: Saturday, March 24 2012 9:40 p.m. MDT

Damian Lillard of Weber State slams the ball home after the clock expired in double overtime against San Jose State at the Dee Events Center at Weber State in Ogden Saturday, December 3, 2011. The dunk didn't count but Weber State won in double overtime, 91-89.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

OGDEN — Damian Lillard is undeniably one of the greatest players in the history of Weber State or Big Sky Conference basketball.

And this year the Wildcats enjoyed one of the best seasons, at least record-wise — 25-7, their best finish since 2003 — in the history of their proud program, which has won 20 or more games 25 times over the last 50 years.

And yet, with all of Lillard's tremendous accomplishments and as good as this season was, it still turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Yep, in the end, it fell short of what the Wildcats were shooting for and what their fans were hoping for.

Sure, 25 victories is a terrific season in anybody's book, but missing out on the NCAA Tournament and being relegated to the Collegeinsider.com Tournament — the bottom tier of postseason tourneys — is certainly not what the Weebcats and their fans had in mind this year.

But WSU head coach Randy Rahe remained upbeat as he reflected on the Wildcats' 2011-12 campaign after it ended last Sunday with an overtime loss at Loyola Marymount in the second round of the CIT event.

"It is a great year, and we're gonna look back on it in a couple of weeks when we get recruiting put to bed and have a chance to relax a little bit," Rahe told Carl Arky, the "Voice of the Wildcats," on their postgame radio show on KZNS 1280 AM "The Zone" a week ago. "I'm really proud of these kids, they did some special things. I mean, 25 wins is a lot of wins (sixth-best in the history of the program).

"These kids can walk away with their heads high. Obviously, we wish we would've done some other things — we wanted the ultimate, we didn't get it — but how these kids responded to that tells you what they're all about. They did an outstanding job and they're as fun a group of kids as I've ever been around in 22 years of coaching. They're gonna look back and know that they had one heck of a season.

"We're gonna get there, it's gonna happen," Rahe said of reaching the NCAA Tournament, something the Wildcats haven't done since his first season at the WSU helm in 2007. Since then, they've lost in the conference championship game twice and in the Big Sky tourney semifinals three other times. "We'll get there and we're not gonna quit working until it does happen."

Of the Wildcats' seven losses this season, five of them came to teams that made it to March Madness — BYU, St. Mary's, California and Montana (twice). Their other two losses were to Loyola Marymount in the CIT and an inexplicable setback at Idaho State — which likely cost the 'Cats the right to host the Big Sky Tournament.

And, since Weber State was undefeated at home with a school-record 16-0 mark in the Dee Events Center this season, it's not too much of a stretch to say that being unable to host the Big Sky playoffs on their home court conceivably cost the 'Cats their chance to subsequently earn an invitation to the NCAA's Big Dance.

Weber State's season was marred by serious injuries to two starters, senior forward Kyle Bullinger and junior forward Frank Otis, along with freshman backup center James Hajek.

Bullinger missed nine games after dislocating his elbow in a nasty fall on a rebound in early December, and although he tried valiantly to tough it out, he was never quite the same when he returned. Otis injured his knee in the Wildcats' loss at BYU and wound up missing 18 of the team's next 20 games. Hajek hurt his knee 15 games into the season and was unable to return.

The 6-foot-6 Bullinger and 6-8 forward Darin Mahoney were the only two seniors on this year's Weber State squad, and they both provided valuable leadership for the Wildcats during their collegiate careers.

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