Missoula, Mont. • One day, Weber State will look back on Tuesday’s great escape with wonder.
The Wildcats, outplayed for about two-thirds of their 69-63 Big Sky Conference Tournament semifinal against Portland State, somehow summoned the necessary energy and will to win.
There was Damian Lillard stripping balls on defense and slashing to the basket offensively. Weber State coach Randy Rahe used his players like chess pieces, substituting to the situation.
Then came Jordan Richardson, a sophomore guard who didn’t play a second in the first half. He somehow sparked a defensive surge that limited the frustrated Vikings to one free throw during the final five minutes at Dahlberg Arena.
Topping everything was freshman Gelaun Wheelwright, who came off the bench to tie his career high with 15 points.
“They just came out more aggressive than us today,” said Lillard, who finished with 22 points and willed the Wildcats over the hump. “They played a better first half and half of a second half.
“Our team is an extremely resilient team. We’ve weathered the storm so much this year, I think we’re used to the situation.”
Lillard said it was simply a matter of the Wildcats getting their minds right. It just took an awfully long time to get there.
Now, Weber State will face Montana — which beat Eastern Washington 74-66 on Tuesday night — Wednesday at 7 p.m. for the right to go to the NCAA Tournament.
Portland State (17-14), the tournament’s third seed, trailed just twice. The first time came at the 16:30 mark of the second half, when WSU’s Scott Bamforth drained his first 3-point attempt.
But then the Vikings pushed back to a nine-point advantage behind Charles Odum and Chehales Tapscott, who combined for 43 points.
When No. 2 seed Weber State (24-5) took its second lead, on a Wheelwright layup with little more than two minutes remaining, PSU couldn’t answer.
“It was frustrating,” Portland State coach Tyler Geving said afterward. “We felt like we outplayed them. They made the plays down the stretch.”
Weber State was also lucky. For example, the Wildcats trailed Portland State 62-60 when Viking guard Lateef McMullan was mugged in the paint without a whistle.
The Wildcats’ Darin Mahoney grabbed the loose ball and started a break that finished with a Lillard game-tying layup. Odum also turned the ball over twice.
Rahe’s substitution pattern, bringing in Richardson for Bamforth on defensive possessions, then began to pay off. Richardson also added five points.
“Jordan Richardson came in and gave us one hell of a lift,” Rahe said. “I really thought he changed the game for us. We were fighting the whole game being aggressive enough, being in attack mode enough. Jordan came in with great, great energy.”
Something had to change for Weber State. The Wildcats, who started slow offensively, finally began hitting shots.
But Portland State also opened its second half by canning seven of its first nine shots. The Viking eventually shot 44 percent for the second half and turned the ball over nine times in the final 20 minutes.
“You always wonder,” said Rahe of whether Weber State had enough left to make a run. “[Portland State was] making some really tough shots. Acrobatic shots. We just got to hang with it. Just get a little bit tougher and stay together.”
Weber State 69, Portland State 63
R WSU holds Portland State to one point in the final five minutes.
• Led by Gelaun Wheelwright’s 15 points, Weber State’s bench outscores the Vikings’ 26-9.
Lillard named Wooden finalist
Weber State point guard Damian Lillard was named Tuesday as one of 15 finalists for the John Wooden Player of the Year award. Lillard, a projected first-round NBA draft pick, is also a finalist for the Oscar Robertson player of the year award and the Bob Cousy award, which honors the best point guard in the nation.
Big Sky title game
P Weber State vs. Montana,
Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPN2