It started on the defensive end. We started slow but picked it up in the second half, started getting some rebounds, and that opened things up for us on the offensive end. —Weber State freshman Ricky Nelson
OGDEN — Clinging to an 81-79 lead with 21.9 seconds remaining, the Weber State Wildcats dug deep with a defensive stop, and made 3 of 4 free throws down the stretch to hold off Portland State, 84-79.
Freshman Ricky Nelson scored a career-high 17 points while Ryan Richardson also netted 17. Six players reached double-figures for Randy Rahe’s Wildcats who moved into a tie for second place in the Big Sky Conference, notching their fifth conference win (12-7, 5-2)
“I was really proud of our guys tonight,” Rahe said. “That was a hard-fought, highly contested, high energy game and our kids found a way to keep battling the whole time.”
For two teams with glossy offensive credentials, this one turned into an old-fashioned slugfest as 49 fouls and three technical fouls were called. Despite the contested calls and stoppages of play, Richardson, a senior, tried to keep everyone calm.
“You just try to keep everyone’s head straight and try not to say much to the refs,” Richardson said. “I felt like we played for each other tonight and for the most part kept level heads.”
Richardson hit the game's first basket, contributed an early blocked shot and drew an offensive foul before knocking down a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 5-4 advantage.
Portland State took a 13-12 lead on a Deontae North 3-point play and stretched it to 16-14 on a North 3-pointer. Nelson, who played 27 minutes, hit a 3-pointer and knocked down a pair of free-throws. Jerrick Harding, the Big Sky’s leading scorer, hit a corner three off a perfectly threaded pass from Dusty Baker.
After a 15-footer from Nelson and two made free-throws from Richardson, the Wildcats earned their biggest lead of the game, 32-20.
But Portland State came storming back. Jamie Orme converted a 3-point play, and leading scorer North put back an offensive rebound and hit two free throws. A 13-2 run from the Vikings as Bryce Canda scored on a layup to cut the deficit to 34-33.
Nelson, who led Weber State with 11 first-half points, hit two free throws to give the Wildcats a 36-33 lead at intermission.
“It started on the defensive end,” Nelson said. “We started slow but picked it up in the second half, started getting some rebounds, and that opened things up for us on the offensive end.”
With Michal Kozak and Zach Braxton each picking up their third foul early in the second half, Rahe was forced to adjust his lineup, staying with Nelson and Harding as his guards and matching Portland State’s 40 minutes of full-court pressure by substituting a bit more than normal.
“I was afraid we would get tired,” Rahe said. “I’ve seen them wear people down, but we had just 13 turnovers against a team that forces a lot more than that.”
Weber State opened a 48-38 advantage on a Brekkott Chapman three-pointer only to see the Vikings cut that margin to 50-47. Kozak, who hadn’t scored in the first half, hit the first of three second half 3-pointers before Portland State came charging back. The Vikings slowly cut into that lead on the strength of 22 points from North and 8 second half points from Bryce Canda. Weber State led 77-75 before free throws from Kozak and an acrobatic, spin through traffic and finish at the rim from Richardson bucket gave the Wildcats some breathing room at 81-75.
Nelson was 5 of 6 in both field goals and free throws while adding three rebounds and two assists in his best game as a Wildcat.
“The coaches and my teammates did a really good job of picking me up through my ups and downs.” Nelson said “It’s a confidence thing, and the coaches tell me I can only get better.”
Following a weekend road loss to North Dakota, Rahe said his team needed more players to play better. On Saturday, the Wildcats had contributions against a Portland State team with six seniors.
“We had 17 assists and six guys in double figures,” Rahe said. “They did a good job on Jerrick but we had other guys that stepped up and that’s what made the difference.”
The Wildcats take on Idaho State, in Pocatello on Saturday, January 27.
WILDCAT FOOTBALL TEAM HONORED: At halftime, Weber State football coach Jay Hill and the Weber State football team received their Big Sky Conference championship trophy, and a standing ovation from the crowd at the Dee Events Center. Hill’s Wildcats finished 11-3 on the season and had eight All-Americans, the most in Weber State history.