The league-leading Weber State Wildcats know the toughest part of their Big Sky Conference basketball schedule remains ahead of them. Thursday's game vs. 10th-place Northern Colorado was challenging enough.
Yet on a night when the nation's most accurate 3-point shooting team struggled from that range and star guard Jeremy Senglin's shot was way off, the Wildcats survived in the last minute with defensive stops and bunch of free throws. Senior forward Kyndahl Hill scored the game's last six points from the line in a 69-63 defeat of Northern Colorado at the Dee Events Center.
The Wildcats are 11-2 in the Big Sky with five games remaining — all against teams with winning records in conference play, starting with Saturday's visit from second-place North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks are "not beating people, they're blasting people," said Wildcats coach Randy Rahe.
Weber State, in contrast, is just getting by lately. But Rahe's team showed some toughness against a Northern Colorado team coached by Jeff Linder, his former assistant. The Bears led 52-46 midway through the second half, before WSU freshman guard Jerrick Harding led a 12-0 run with seven points.
Harding's spurt included the only 3-pointer the Wildcats made among their last 10 attempts of the game. "We needed a spark; we needed something," Rahe said.
That's because Senglin, who was averaging 21 points, was scoreless in the second half and finished 2 of 12 from the field for six points. The Wildcats were 5 of 18 from 3-point range, barely maintaining their Division I lead with .427 success for the season.
"You've got to win different ways; I tell the kids that all the time," Rahe said.
"Don't worry about [Senglin]," said WSU center Zach Braxton, who scored 16 points to complement Hill's 19.
Brazton predicted a big response Saturday from Senglin, who followed his 11 points in a loss at Sacramento State last week with a 32-point effort in an overtime win at Portland State. Senglin is No. 9 among the Big Sky's all-time leading scorers with 1,847 points. With the Wildcats likely to play about nine more games, he has a reasonable chance of producing the 173 points he needs to overtake No. 2 scorer Bruce Collins, a former Weber State star. Along the way, Senglin would pass the likes of WSU's Damian Lillard and Montana's Larry Krystkowiak — although Idaho's Orlando Lightfoot (2,102) is likely out of reach.
Senglin barely added to his career point total against the Bears, who were conscious of taking away Weber State's outside threat. His 18-game run of scoring in double figures ended, as he matched his season low from a November game vs. Iona.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, alternatives were available Thursday. Braxton's inside work helped them take a 62-57 lead with 3:07 remaining, but then WSU couldn't stop Jordan Davis from driving and scoring, pulling the Bears into a 63-63 tie.
And after Senglin missed a 3-point try, Northern Colorado had two shots to take the lead. Hill saved the Wildcats by rebounding the ball, being fouled and making two free throws — a sequence he repeated twice more in the last 12 seconds, giving his team a winning margin that appeared fairly comfortable.
The game didn't play out that way in reality, but the Wildcats were good enough to beat Northern Colorado. Now comes Weber State's truth-telling closing stretch of the schedule: North Dakota, followed by Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and Montana State. If the Wildcats complete another Big Sky regular-season championship quest, they will have earned it.