CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Two minutes transformed into an eternity for Weber State Saturday.
The Wildcats were clinging — holding on for dear life — to a one-point lead against Northern Iowa with 2:07 remaining in regulation.
With both teams seeking an opportunity to host the College Insider.com Tournament Championship on April 2, chaos unfolded before the Wildcats ultimately pulled one from the hat in their 59-56 upset win at the McLeod Center.
“I was really proud of our guys. We went into a tough environment tonight — they had a great crowd,” Weber State coach Randy Rahe said. “They’ve got a high-quality team. Our guys fought like crazy. That was a pure toughness game from our guys.”
Weber State (30-6) will play in April for the first time in program history against East Carolina at the Dee Events Center on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The Pirates (22-12) beat Evansville 81-58 in the first semifinal game preceding the Wildcats.
“It’s exciting. We get a championship game on our court,” Rahe said. “No matter what tournament — when that happens — I think it’s pretty special. Hopefully we’ll have a great crowd. We don’t know a lot about East Carolina yet — it should be a really good basketball game. We’re thankful that we’re able to have it in Ogden.”
Jake Koch had just pulled the Panthers to within one, 57-56, with 2:07 left in the second half when the teams combined for five straight misses. After the Panthers missed consecutive layups by Deon Mitchell and Seth Tuttle, Weber State’s Jordan Richardson collectively stepped to the stripe and swished both freebies.
With the three-point advantage, Weber State elected to foul Northern Iowa in order to avoid a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds left.
The strategy worked flawlessly.
Koch not only missed the front end of the ensuing free throws, but his second attempt clanged off the iron, too. However, with a chance to put the game on ice, Davion Berry missed the first free-throw in a 1-and-1 situation — giving Northern Iowa another crack at a miracle with three seconds left.
Berry deflected the ensuing inbounds pass outbounds, dwindling the clock down to 1.5 seconds. The Panthers needed a 3-pointer — something they hadn’t tasted in the second half.
UNI turned to Koch. Spotting up well beyond the arc, he squared his feet with the onrush of Weber State defenders — awkwardly tossed up an off-balanced 3-pointer that fell several states short.
The Wildcats did it.
"We had a lot of stuff going on in the last few minutes," Rahe said. "We ran out of timeouts in an emergency situation. We were trying to get across to our guys what we wanted them to do in the spur of the moment, and our guys handled everything really well. It was crazy, but our guys really held their composure."
Northern Iowa set a single-season program record for most home wins (16) including wins over Saint Mary’s, Creighton and Wichita State, which punched a ticket to the Final Four. The Panthers also took Louisville to the wire before ultimately losing by five points. This was the hardest road test of the season bar none.
It didn't faze the Wildcats. WSU put the allure of the McLeod Center to bed with an 11-0 burst from the gates. UNI’s first points came at the 14:18 mark off Anthony James' mid-range jumper, but Scott Bamforth answered immediately with a straightaway 3-pointer for a 14-2 cushion.
“It was huge to get off to that kind of start on their court,” Rahe said. “It was huge for our guys as far as confidence. We jumped up on them, we stopped them, (and) we made shots. I think immediately our guys felt we could play with these guys.”
Bamforth continued his hot hand in the CIT, increasing his tournament 3-point total to 19. He finished with 14 points with four treys — all coming in the first half. Davion Berry added 15 points and seven rebounds.
The Panthers cut the deficit following two quick layups by Tuttle and Jake Cook to slice the margin to four, 16-12. But, as he has done countlessly, Bamforth countered with another 3-pointer with 10:06 in the first half.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” Rahe said. “They’re too good not to.”
After UNI’s Chip Rank hit back-to-back triples off the bench, Weber State closed the half on a 7-2 run that culminated with Bamforth’s fourth 3 ball with three seconds until halftime for a 38-31 lead.
In the second half, UNI made an adjustment defensively on Bamforth. The Panthers weren’t about to let the all-time leader in 3-pointers beat them.
However, Bamforth isn’t the only senior fighting for every minute in purple and white.
Frank “Mook” Otis picked up the slack as Bamforth fought extra pressure, Tresnak battled foul trouble, Berry fended off double-teams while Joel Bolomboy sat the second half after suffering a separated shoulder. Otis finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds and kept WSU above water during long periods without any points.