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Weber State basketball: 50 years later, ’Cats still dominate

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State Wildcats guard Gelaun Wheelwright (0) talks to Weber State Wildcats head coach Randy Rahe, in basketball action at the Dee Event Center in Ogden, Monday, February 11, 2013.

By Martin Renzhofer

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 06 2013 02:31PM
Updated Mar 8, 2013 09:55PM

Ogden • Dick Motta called it Weber State’s miracle.

In 1963-64 and only a handful of years removed from its junior college days, Weber State jumped at the chance to become a charter member of the Big Sky Conference.

One season later, the purple-clad Wildcats won the first of 19 conference men’s basketball championships. Three years after that, WSU — then know as Weber State College — found itself leading New Mexico State by three points with less than seven minutes to play.

During a timeout, Motta turned to his assistant, Phil Johnson:

"What the hell are we doing here?" Motta yelled over the din of the University of Utah’s old Nielsen Fieldhouse. "If we win this game, we get [Lew] Alcinder next."

WSU eventually lost the game and the right to play UCLA and its dominant center, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

However, the Wildcats would win their first NCAA Tournament game the next year as Johnson, now the coach, led his team past Seattle, a major player on the college basketball scene in those days.

The Wildcats lost in overtime to second-ranked Santa Clara.

Over the course of 50 years, Weber State has made its mark among the smaller mid-major basketball programs. The school will honor the players and coaches Friday with "An Evening With Legends," and Saturday during halftime of its final regular-season home game in the Dee Events Center.

"Before going to Weber State, I didn’t know a lot about it," said 1996 Big Sky MVP Jimmy Degraffenried. "But I really liked the people up there. I liked the arena, the purple and the atmosphere."

What Degraffenried really liked was the winning. He was part of the 1995 team that upset third-seeded Michigan State, prematurely ending the career of former Montana coach Jud Heathcote. WSU came within a missed free throw of beating Georgetown in the next round.

When the Wildcats upset No. 3 seed North Carolina in 1999 behind Harold "The Show" Arceneaux’s 36 points, Degraffenried, watching on TV, experienced flashbacks.

"Oh yeah, for sure," he said. "One thing about coach [Ron] Abegglen, he was really good about preparing his players. He did a good job making us believe."

Abegglen thought both teams may have overlooked Weber State, but he also believed that, after watching film, the quicker Wildcats could beat North Carolina.

By halftime, so did many of the neutrals watching in Seattle’s KeyArena, who cheered every Arceneaux rainbow from the 3-point line.

"When we saw we were playing North Carolina [on Selection Sunday], the players were jumping up and down," Abegglen remembered. "I wasn’t so sure."

From its beginnings in Swenson Gym — "5,000 people at every game, they were hanging from the balcony," said Utah Valley coach and former WSU guard Dick Hunsaker — to the Dee Events Center starting in 1978, Weber State has dominated the Big Sky.

It has 19 regular-season league titles, the most by far of any school, and eight conference tournament championships.

Coming into 2013, Weber State owned the 23rd-best winning percentage of all Division I schools (.635). The ’Cats have experienced only eight losing seasons.

WSU, which set a conference mark in 2013 with its seventh consecutive season with 10 or more league victories, also has the most Big Sky NCAA victories, with six.

In 2012, ESPN named Weber State the 39th-best college program in the nation. The Dee Events Center is wallpapered with Big Sky and NCAA banners.

"My whole goal is to be part of that history," said WSU guard Scott Bamforth, who found out about his school’s past on the Internet. "I know there were a lot of great players to play here and I feel like I played with the best player in Damian [Lillard]."

Lillard, taken sixth overall in 2012 NBA Draft by Portland, tops a list of talented athletes who have played in Ogden. Even during its days as a junior college, Weber State has never lacked for quality players. In 1959, a year after finishing second, Allen Holmes led the Wildcats to the NJCAA Tournament title.

The first true game-changer for WSU, however, was Willie Sojourner. The 6-foot-8 Philadelpha native, who would eventually play in the ABA, was a freshman during Motta’s final year. Back then, freshmen were ineligible to play varsity games.

"When I left our freshmen team could beat our varsity," Motta said. "We told Willie we knew he was coming and the ‘WS’ logo on the nearby mountainside stood for Willie Sojourner’s hill."

In three seasons, Sojourner grabbed 1,143 rebounds and scored 1,563 points while leading WSC to three consecutive NCAA berths.

Joining Sojourner and Lillard as three-time All-Big Sky First Team performers were Jimmie Watts (1974-76), Bruce Collins (1978-80) and Jermaine Boyette (2001-03).

Lillard and Arceneaux were also named as Big Sky’s MVP twice. Others who won the award include Ruben Nembhard (1995), David Patton (2007) and Kellen McCoy (2009).

Seven of the school’s nine coaches, including Neil McCarthy, Joe Cravens, former player Gene Visscher and current Wildcat leader Randy Rahe, have taken teams to the NCAA Tournament.

"I knew about the tradition long before I got here," said Rahe, now in his seventh season. "It was also reassuring — this is a good basketball job, and if you do it the right way and do what you’re supposed to, you might have a chance to win."

Not that there haven’t been disappointments.

There have been lost leads and blown chances in conference and NCAA tournaments. Three times, Weber State failed to advance to the second round because of missed free throws. This included overtime losses to Santa Clara (1969) and Florida (1999). In 1995, Weber State had a chance to beat Georgetown in regulation. Missed foul shots and a tip-in at the buzzer spoiled that opportunity.

One of the most painful losses came in 1980, when the Collins-led Wildcats, ranked in the top 20, had a first-round NCAA game at home but lost by one to Lamar. But most of all, Weber State has set itself a standard of success.

"We want to continue to have success," Rahe said. "But we’re looking at trying to take that next step. So, we’re selling [recruits] on a dream, too."

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