They (Southern Utah) came in with a nothing-to-lose attitude tonight and they played loose, free and easy. We were very, very fortunate to survive. I know we can play a lot better, but a lot of credit goes to them and how they played tonight. —Weber State head coach Randy Rahe
OGDEN — Weber State got off to a sluggish start to the season by dropping four of its first five games, but the ’Cats seem to have broken free of their early season struggles and have now won five of their last six contests, including a 65-59 home win against in-state rival Southern Utah University on Saturday night.
“They (Southern Utah) came in with a nothing-to-lose attitude tonight and they played loose, free and easy,” Weber State head coach Randy Rahe said after the game. “We were very, very fortunate to survive. I know we can play a lot better, but a lot of credit goes to them and how they played tonight.”
As a team, WSU has struggled to connect from long distance all season and ranks just ninth in the Big Sky in 3-point field goal percentage at 34 percent.
Fortunately for the purple and white, they put on one of their best outside-shooting performances of the year on Saturday night as they shot 42.9 percent from deep and knocked down six 3-pointers.
However, unfortunately for Weber State (7-6, 4-1), its defense, ball security and bench production did not emulate its success from 3-point land.
“I didn’t think we played well, but again, I think part of that has to do with Southern Utah. I thought they came in, did some things to us and took us out of a few things, so a lot of credit goes to them.”
Southern Utah (1-14, 0-6) simply outplayed the Wildcats in nearly every other category in the first half. WSU’s bench was outscored 15-4, the ’Cats committed more turnovers (six), dished out fewer assists (six), and made fewer field goals (10).
“Well, we just needed to play better in the second half. We didn’t play very well and we didn’t guard very well,” Rahe added. “I thought they had us back on our heels and they made some shots to get some confidence really, really early, and their confidence grew.”
SUU starters Trey Kennedy and A.J. Hess both had productive first halves as they combined for 15 points to ignite an 11-2 Thunderbirds’ run that put SUU on top 26-22 with just 5:23 left in the half. Meanwhile, senior forward Jaren Jeffery came off the bench and netted a team-high 13 points, including the final six points of the first half, on 5-of-5 shooting to anchor the road team.
The Wildcats really picked up their urgency on the defensive end in the final 20 minutes of play as their swarming defense limited Southern Utah to 36 percent shooting from the field and just 27 points.
“In the second half, once we went to that zone, we got some momentum going,” Rahe said of WSU’s defensive effort in the second half. “The crowd got excited a little bit, and I thought the emotion of the crowd and changing defenses picked our spirits up a little bit.”
Weber State made the necessary adjustments on defense while star-studded senior forward Davion Berry went on a tear, scoring 18 second-half points to fuel the ’Cats' comeback.
Berry attacked the basket and got to the line a staggering 23 times, a new school record, where he managed to net 18 of his game-high 25 points.
“I thought Davion was really good. We needed to start driving that ball, attacking and getting to the free-throw line,” Rahe said of his senior star forward.
WSU’s big advantage came at the charity stripe, where the Wildcats were able to get to the line an impressive 43 times, compared to just 12 for SUU, and outscore the Thunderbirds 31-7 to ultimately ice the game.
Berry went on to hit three free throws in the final seven ticks to help the home team escape with the narrow 65-59 victory.
Weber State is set to tip off against Idaho State on Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Dee Events Center.
Ryan Love is a full-time student at the University of Utah studying communications and has been a part-time sports reporter and scoreboarder for the Deseret News since October 2012.
Follow him on Twitter @RLove7724