SAN DIEGO — Even though logic screamed otherwise, Weber State took the floor against top seed Arizona in the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday afternoon ready to make history.
“Believe it or not, not a lot of people thought it, but we came here expecting to win,” said Weber State coach Randy Rahe.
It showed in the opening minutes as Weber State built an early lead, and then again in the second half when the Wildcats fought through the adversity of a 21-point deficit, cutting it to single digits late.
Weber State's bid to become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed eventually ran out of time as Arizona held on for the 68-59 victory, but the school represented itself incredibly well and immediately had people suggesting it was seeded low in the West Region.
“Proud of our guys,” said Rahe, who quickly added, “It hurts.”
Senior Davion Berry led all scorers with 24 points in a game Weber State fought and clawed for every point possible against Arizona’s suffocating defense.
That defense held Weber State to just 30 percent shooting, but offensive rebounding allowed the Wildcats to hang around until the final minute.
“That team can really, really guard. That’s the best defensive team I’ve faced since I’ve been at Weber State,” said Rahe. “They’re outstanding. They just don’t make mistakes. They’re so well-coached, and that’s what’s going to propel them into a long run in this tournament.”
Weber State made Arizona sweat the final few minutes, though.
When Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s layup put Arizona ahead 50-29 with 11:35 remaining, it looked as if the favored 'Cats were poised to coast into the third round. Weber State, however, didn’t wilt and cut the deficit to nine on two different occasions in the final four minutes.
After Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson and Berry swapped 3-pointers, what followed next is the missed call that will haunt Weber State for a while.
With 1:58 remaining, Berry put himself in perfect position to force a charging foul on Johnson, but the ref instead whistled a blocking foul. It would’ve given Weber State the ball with a chance to make it a two-possession game. Instead, the call allowed Arizona to milk more time off the clock before increasing its lead back to 11.
“I felt like I beat him to the spot, didn’t get the call,” said Berry.
The Wildcats did cut the lead to 66-59 on a Jordan Richardson 3-pointer with 24 seconds remaining, but time ran out on their bid at history.
The loss was a disappointing end for Weber State, but simply making the NCAA tournament this year was an accomplishment after a seven-year drought.
Weber State couldn’t have asked for a better start Friday. It held tentative Arizona scoreless for nearly five minutes to open the game and took a 10-2 lead as Berry and Richaud Gittens hit consecutive 3-pointers.
Despite the quick start, numerous other Weber State possessions ended in cheap turnovers against Arizona’s nationally ranked defense. Even though the Wildcats cleaned up their early turnover woes, every possession was a grind.
“We had a hard time getting easy baskets. You just get them against that team,” said Rahe.
Arizona limited Weber State to three field goals over the final 14:09 of the first half, while offensively it had no problem creating good looks. After falling behind 10-2, the top-seeded 'Cats scored on 8 of 9 possessions to build a 20-15 lead.
Arizona shot 50 percent to build a 32-20 halftime lead, with Weber State struggling at a 25 percent clip.
In the second half, Arizona continued to put the pressure on Weber State, scoring on eight of its first 11 possessions to go ahead comfortably by 21 points.
“They sped us up a little bit. We started playing their basketball. They started dictating what we were going to do. By the time we tried to fix it we were already down 21,” said Weber State freshman Gittens.
Gittens helped kick-start the rally with seven straight points, cutting the deficit to 53-36 with 10:04 left. After that the Wildcats’ ability to get to the free-throw line kept them in the game — with 12 of their next 15 points coming at the line.
“They got up on us by 20. We could’ve folded the tents,” said Rahe. “Our guys got a little tougher and showed a little more resiliency like they have all year.”
Gittens finished with 12 points for Weber State, with Joel Bolomboy chipping in with a double-double of 16 rebounds and 11 points.
Afterward, Arizona coach Sean Miller had nothing but praise for Weber State.
“Weber is one of the best teams we’ve played all season. We played some of the great teams in college basketball and I don’t care what the name of their conference is or what they say on their shirt,” said Miller.