The moment it became clear that this was Weber State’s night was just before halftime, when Davion Berry delivered a 25-foot shot and a courtside fan excitedly slapped Berry’s hand in celebration.
Yes, when NBA star Damian Lillard is impressed, that’s a good sign.
Lillard’s loyalty was rewarded Saturday night. One of Weber State’s most famous alumni witnessed an 88-67 victory over North Dakota for the Big Sky Conference tournament championship at the Dee Events Center.
His former teammates produced the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in seven years, thanks largely to a career-high 27 points from center Kyle Tresnak and 19 from Berry, Lillard’s childhood friend in Oakland, Calif.
"That’s my brother," Berry said. "We’ve been together since we were little. We’ve been through the battles."
The Wildcats value Lillard’s impact on the program. He persuaded Berry to transfer from a Division II school, and having seniors Jordan Richardson, Tresnak and Berry (the MVP) make the all-tournament team is more evidence of his lasting influence, two years later.
"He’s as close to us now as he was when he played here," said WSU coach Randy Rahe.
Lillard and Rahe exchanged mid-week text messages, with the Portland Trail Blazers’ guard promising to visit Saturday. Rahe reminded him that the Wildcats had to win Friday’s semifinal game. "You have no choice," Lillard responded. "I have the plane ready. It’s paid for."
Rahe laughed in retelling the story, citing Lillard’s frugal nature.
In a weird way, Lillard’s return reinforced how much a conference tournament title should be appreciated in Ogden. Even with Lillard in the lineup, Weber State couldn’t advance to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats won the Big Sky tournament title in Rahe’s first season of 2006-07. Yet his regular-season consistency was becoming more of an indictment than an achievement lately. No wonder a relieved Rahe concluded, "It’s about time; that’s all I’m going to say."
Weber State had lost three times in the championship game and three times in the semifinals in the previous six years. The Wildcats were upset twice on their home court, lost three times with Lillard and dropped four straight tournament games to Montana. So maybe as much as Lillard’s presence in the building, the Grizzlies’ absence (Montana was eliminated in the quarterfinals) signified that this year would be different for Weber State.
The theory that everything is difficult for the Wildcats in March was driven home Friday, though. They blew a seven-point lead in the late stages of regulation, before outlasting Northern Colorado.
Rahe sensed something different Saturday morning, telling his staff, "I have a feeling we’re going to play really good tonight."
All that remained was the matter of finishing the tournament properly, which is why WSU’s start was so important. The Wildcats made their first six shots — including four 3-pointers, all launched from Lillard’s side of the court — and two free throws, building an 18-6 lead. Berry’s shot made it 44-34 at halftime.
The second half was shockingly uneventful. The Wildcats enjoyed every bit of it, and so did their biggest fan. Late in the game, Berry slipped a no-look pass to Tresnak for a dunk. Lillard jumped out of his chair, shouting to his teammates as they ran down the court.
Lillard had texted a request to Berry: "Go get this one for me, too."
The Wildcats fulfilled his wish. Lillard will return to work Sunday night in Portland, shortly after Weber State learns its NCAA destination. Memo to the tournament committee: The Blazers will be in North Carolina next Friday.
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