Reno, Nev. • Weber State, the team that started the season with the best chance of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament among Utah's six Division I basketball programs, hardly could have asked for a better opportunity to get there Saturday night.
The Big Sky Conference's preseason favorites faded in February, but they were wonderfully positioned to advance in March. It would be oversimplifying things to say all the Wildcats had to do was successfully in-bound the ball after North Dakota's two free throws cut their lead to four points in the last 48 seconds Saturday night. But that's certainly the starting point of how their NCAA quest ended, and there went the state's last shot of 2017.
North Dakota's rally forced overtime, and the Fighting Hawks' 93-89 victory ensured the second no-show of Utah schools in the NCAA Tournament since 1994 — about 24 hours after Utah Valley lost a four-overtime game in the Western Athletic Conference semifinals in Las Vegas.
In the end, the Wildcats didn't deserve to qualify. And that's what I like about conference tournaments, especially in one-bid leagues such as the Big Sky. Some would argue that it is unfair for a regular-season champion like North Dakota to have to prove itself again to make the NCAA field. But I enjoy seeing how those teams respond under pressure. The Hawks came through over 45 minutes, while the Wildcats wilted.
Having taken teams to seven Big Sky championship games in his 11 seasons and won three titles, Weber State coach Randy Rahe could rationalize the defeat — which didn't make it any easier to absorb. But getting that shot is all he could want.
"It's exciting. It's challenging," Rahe said. "I think it's one of the most enjoyable things to do, to go into one of these games and have a chance to win or lose it. You can't be afraid to lose."
The Wildcats lost it Saturday, as much as North Dakota it. But that's how these things work. One team's comeback is another's collapse. And the UND seniors remembered the Wildcats' celebration of a title in Ogden in 2014 when they were freshmen. Three years later, they delivered the first NCAA bid in the school's Division I history. Even with a crowd of only 2,025 in the Reno Events Center, the atmosphere was lively and intense.
Sometimes, you get rewarded for showing up at these games. Utah Valley's 81-80, four-overtime loss to Cal State Bakersfield in Friday's WAC semifinals will resonate with me. The longer the game lasted, the better it got. Even with nobody making a winning basket among five opportunities, counting the end of regulation, the teams delivered all kinds of drama.
UVU should have won in regulation, and the Wolverines have to live with that reality. The slice of those 60 minutes of basketball that UVU will most remember is the last 2 minutes, 40 seconds of regulation when the Wolverines lost a 49-41 lead — which seemed like a landslide, the way those teams were struggling to score.
UVU coach Mark Pope blamed himself for UVU's tentative response to Bakersfield's pressing defense, with a series of turnovers enabling the Roadrunners to rally.
"I did a poor job getting our players to stay in attack mode against the press," he said. "I wish I could take that back."
The boxscore is just bizarre. Utah Valley committed 28 turnovers and grabbed 68 rebounds, including 16 by Isaac Neilson, even though he fouled out in only 22 minutes. In fairness, it has to be said that a lot of offensive and defensive rebounds were available to him. The teams combined to make 23 of their first 100 shots from the field.
UVU's Conner Toolson, the team's leading scorer as a sophomore, missed his first eight shots, then made a 3-pointer to open the third overtime. But the lead didn't last. So for the first time in six years, with a church mission in between, Toolson's basketball season ended in defeat. He won three state titles with Lone Peak High School and a national championship with Salt Lake Community College last March.
"I guess it's getting to be a little normal for me," he said then. "But I know it's not normal."
A defeat sometime in March is inevitable for most players, as Weber State and Utah Valley understand. Whenever and wherever it happens, the sense of what's lost is stunning.
That's what makes this stuff so much fun to watch.