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Phil Johnson coached Weber State between 1968-71 and led Weber State to three Big Sky titles and their first NCAA Tournament victory. Also pictured, Dick Motta. Courtesy Weber State Communications
Weber State basketball: 50 years later, ’Cats still dominate

Weber and its talented casts have owned the Big Sky from the start.

First Published Mar 06 2013 02:31 pm • Last Updated Mar 08 2013 09:55 pm

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.

At a glance

WSU coaches

Dick Motta » 1962-68, 120-33 — 3 BSC titles

Phil Johnson » 1968-71 68-16 3 BSC titles

Gene Visscher » 1971-75, 63-45 — 2 BSC titles

Neil McCarthy » 1975-85, 200-98 — 4 BSC titles

Larry Farmer » 1985-88, 34-54

Denny Houston » 1988-91, 43-42

Ron Abegglen » 1991-98, 152-83 — 3 BSC titles

Joe Cravens » 1999-06, 116-88 — 1 BSC title

Randy Rahe » 2006-present, 142-73 — 3 BSC titles

WSU notable marks, records

NCAA victories

1969 » Seattle, 75-73; New Mexico State, 58-56 (Consolation game)

1972 » Hawaii, 91-64

1979 » New Mexico State, 81-78 (OT)

1995 » Michigan State, 79-72

1999 » North Carolina, 76-74

Top 10 scorers

Bruce Collins » 2,019

Damian Lillard » 1,934

Jimmy Degraffenried » 1,624

Jermaine Boyette » 1,613

Willie Sojourner » 1,563

Jimmy Watts » 1,553

Al Hamilton » 1,452

Todd Harper » 1,382

David Johnson » 1,369

Harold Arceneaux » 1,357

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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."

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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.

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Portland Stateat Weber State

O At the Dee Events Center (Ogden)

Tipoff » 7 p.m.

TV » None

Radio » 1280 AM

Records » PSU 8-18, 5-13 Big Sky; WSU 22-5, 16-2

Series history » WSU, 19-1

Last meeting » WSU, 73-69 (Dec. 22, 2012)

About the Vikings » PSU has lost 10 of its last 13 games and has been eliminated from the Big Sky tournament.

About the Wildcats » WSU is 21-0 this season when outrebounding its opponent. ... The ‘Cats rank in the top 10 nationally in field-goal percentage (2nd), 3-point percentage (1st), 3-point percentage defense (5th) and scoring margin (7th).... Scott Bamforth needs 15 points to become the 12th all-time scorer in school history.

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