Wildcats want a fabulous end to a fabulous season

Published: Monday, March 5 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

Weber State has enjoyed one of the best seasons ever in the history of its proud men's basketball program.

And WSU junior guard Damian Lillard ranks among the greatest players to ever put on a Purple and White jersey, and also among the best to ever to strut his stuff in the Big Sky Conference.

But if the Wildcats don't win two more games this week and earn an NCAA Tournament berth, this stellar season will shape up as a huge disappointment.

How's that for pressure?

Only five other Weber State men's teams have won as many as 24 or more games in a season, and the Wildcats could reach that win total with a victory over Portland State in Tuesday's Big Sky tournament semifinals at Missoula, Mont.

On Wednesday, the Weber State-Portland State survivor will face the winner of Tuesday night's second semifinal matchup between tournament host Montana and Eastern Washington, with the league's automatic NCAA berth hanging in the balance.

The Wildcats, who piled up a perfect 15-0 record on their home court this season, missed out on their chance to host this year's tourney with a devastating 66-51 loss to Montana last week.

Weber State is hoping to get another shot at the Grizzlies, who finished conference play 15-1, Wednesday night in the tourney title game. But the Wildcats must first find a way to beat Portland State for the third time this season.

"I tip my hat to Montana," said WSU coach Randy Rahe. "We're 14-2 in the conference, and normally that's good enough for a conference championship. (The Grizzlies) did a heck of a job.

"There's not going to be a Wednesday if you don't focus 100 percent on Tuesday. You want to get to Wednesday, let's focus on what we've got to do. All I'm focused in on is Tuesday. It's coachspeak, but it's really reality. Our whole focus is to try and get our team playing as good as we can on Tuesday.

"If we're fortunate enough to win that one, we'll have 24 hours to figure out the next one," he said.

Coach Rahe knows a little bit about having a great regular season, only to see it spoiled with a disappointing defeat in the conference tournament. The Wildcats won regular-season titles and hosted the Big Sky tourney in 2009 and again in 2010, but failed to win it both times.

The 2010 tourney title game was particularly disheartening, as Weber State squandered a 20-point halftime lead, with Montana's Anthony Johnson torching the Wildcats for a tournament-record 42 points, including an unstoppable 34 in the second half and, incredibly, his team's final 21 points as the Grizzlies grabbed a 66-65 victory over the stunned 'Cats.

"It's always a disappointment," Rahe said of losing in the league tournament. "When you've had a terrific season, you want to finish it off the right way. And every team wants that. Everybody's goal is to win a league championship or to win an NCAA Tournament or get to the NCAA Tournament, or both. So obviously it would be a disappointment (not to win it).

"When you get away from that, you look back and get some time to reflect and you look at what your team has done. Nobody can take away from the fact that these guys had a terrific year; we just didn't finish it off the way we wanted to. It'll hurt, but we're 23-5 and I don't know how many times Weber's been 23-5 after 28 games. After time goes by, you reflect on the team and what they did and they've had a fabulous season. We do want to finish it off the right way and that's our goal. So any time you come up short of that, you're obviously going to be disappointed.

"There's another team in our league that's done exactly what we've done and they feel exactly the same way," Rahe said of the Grizzlies (23-6). "… It's one of those strange years where you've got two really high-quality teams. We'd like to finish it off the right way. It would sure be fitting if we could go out there and play the way we're capable and put ourselves in a position to do that. That's all you ask is to have the opportunity and then whatever happens happens."

"It's unfortunate that our league gets only one (NCAA) bid and it comes down to the Big Sky championship," Lillard said after the Wildcats' recent BracketBuster win. "But I definitely think that we're a (NCAA) tournament team."

The Wildcats have beaten Portland State twice this season, 88-81 in Portland and 92-79 in Ogden, with Lillard — the nation's second-leading scorer (24.5 ppg) and league MVP — pouring in a total of 78 points — 38 and 40 — against the Vikings.

And while Weber State has never lost to Portland State in the Big Sky tourney (4-0), the Vikings have won seven of their last eight games and are playing solid basketball right now. In fact, Portland State wound up with two players on the All-Big Sky first team, Charles Odum (19.0 ppg) and Chehales Tapscott (14 points, 9.3 rebounds per game), while WSU only had one — Lillard.

And now, if they don't want to wind up playing in the NIT, CBI or some other lame postseason tournament, Lillard and the Wildcats must find a way to win two more games this week. And do it the hard way.

Or what has been such a memorable season will instead be soon forgotten.

Email: rhollis@desnews.com

Wildcats on the air

Big Sky tournament semifinals

Weber State (23-5) vs.

Portland State (17-13)

Today, 5:30 p.m.

Dahlberg Arena, Missoula, Mont.

TV: Altitude Radio: 1280 AMWSUnotes

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