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Weber State basketball: Wildcats overcome slow start to reach NCAA tournament

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North Dakota's Troy Huff (5) shoots as Weber State's Richard Gittens (23) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Big Sky Conference tournament Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Ogden, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

By Steve Luhm

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 17 2014 05:17PM
Updated Mar 17, 2014 11:20PM

Ogden • As Christmas approached and the losses mounted, Weber State coach Randy Rahe didn’t know where his team was headed.

It certainly didn’t look like the NCAA Tournament.

"The big picture never entered my mind," Rahe said Monday. "... I wasn’t thinking about it, in all honesty. We were just consumed with trying to figure out how to make our team better."

Mission accomplished.

After a 2-5 start, the Wildcats won the Big Sky Conference regular season and postseason tournament. They qualified for their first NCAA Tournament since 2007 and will play Arizona on Friday in San Diego.

Clearly, Weber State has come a long way since Rahe asked an inexperienced team to play "an incredibly difficult" nonconference schedule, which included games against BYU, Colorado State, Utah State and UCLA.

"We might have been 2-5 with a very good veteran team," he said. "... That’s how good our schedule was."

Another problem?

Weber State endured an unexpected 11-day break because weather cancelled a game at Texas-Arlington on Dec. 7. The Wildcats didn’t play between a 72-55 win over San Jose State and a 62-59 loss at Utah Valley.

"We just could not get into any kind of rhythm," Rahe said. "It’s something you can’t do when you’re just practicing all the time."

The Wildcats played well in the second half against San Jose, leaving Rahe hopeful a corner had been turned. But his team "went back to square one" because of the inactivity caused by the UT-Arlington cancellation.

"We were trying to mix a group of young guys with some veteran guys and it was tough," Rahe said. "We weren’t good in any area. We didn’t have any rhythm on offense and we were not a good defensive team."

When the Big Sky season began, the situation changed.

Seniors Davion Berry, Jordan Richardson and Kyle Tresnak began to mesh with a group of talented underclassmen that included sophomore Joel Bolomboy and first-year players Jeremy Senglin, Richaud Gittens and Kyndahl Hill.

Bolomboy emerged as the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year. Senglin became the conference’s Freshman of the Year.

"Looking back, our problem was inexperience as much as anything," Rahe said. "We needed to play games so guys could get comfortable with each other. ... They just weren’t on the same page for a while."

Weber State ended up 19-11, including 14-6 in the Big Sky.

Last weekend, the Wildcats defeated Northern Colorado (66-63 in overtime) and North Dakota (88-67) to win the tournament and reach the NCAAs

A huge step?

Consider: Weber never qualified for the Big Dance during NBA All-Star Damian Lillard’s three seasons with the Wildcats.

"The biggest jump we made to get going in the right direction was defensively," Rahe said. "We started getting a few stops, which got us into transition, which allowed us to get some easy baskets. That always helps your confidence, especially with young players. But it was a process."

Next stop: San Diego.

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