MISSOULA, Mont. — The Wildcats were just minutes from the end of the road before they found a path to victory.
Big Sky MVP Damian Lillard scored 22 points and Weber State got key contributions off the bench as it narrowly escaped Portland State with a 69-63 victory Tuesday at Dahlberg Arena in the semifinals of the Big Sky tournament.
Freshman guard Gelaun Wheelwright tied his career high with 15 points as the Wildcats bench outscored the Vikings bench 26-9.
Sophomore center Kyle Tresnak added 10 points, eight in the second half, and sophomore guard Jordan Richardson offered No. 2 seed Weber State (24-5) a defensive boost to help close out a scrappy fourth-seeded Portland State (17-14) squad.
In the final 29 seconds, Lillard made 3-of-4 free throws and Richardson sank two more as WSU staved off the Vikings.
Weber State will face Montana today at 7 p.m. in the Big Sky tournament championship after the Griz fought off Eastern Washington 74-66 in the other semifinal.
’Cats coach Randy Rahe said he wouldn’t have minded seeing that game go to three or four overtimes, but Weber State will meet Montana in the conference tourney for the third straight season. The Grizzlies stole an NCAA Tournament bid from the Wildcats in 2010 and eliminated WSU in the semifinals in 2011.
Weber State and Montana split two previous games this year, with the Griz winning a showdown in Missoula on the last day of the regular season to caim first place and earn the right to host the tournament.
Portland State’s duo of senior all-conference players gave the Wildcats fits in the first semifinal.
Guard Charles Odum scored a game-high 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting, while forward Chehales Tapscott added a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double, but somehow the Purple and White scratched out a ‘W.’
“It was frustrating because it felt like for about 39 minutes there we kind of outplayed them,” Vikings coach Tyler Gevings said. “They made the plays down the stretch and we didn’t.”
Rahe said his team needed to dig deep to get the win as Portland State started the game on a 7-0 run and battled deep into the second half.
“There’s nothing else you can do but get a little bit tougher, stay together, keep doing what we’re doing, let’s just get some stops and rebounds,” Rahe said. “It was just one of those grinding games that you had to hang in there. Our guys really grinded away. It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way.”
Wheelwright slashed to the basket for a layup to give Weber State the lead for good with 2:29 remaining.
“I was just being aggressive,” Wheelwright said. “Coach Rahe told me before the game just play your game and don’t worry about mistakes. Luckily I made the right play.”
Portland State shot 46.2 percent from the field and hit 8-of-14 (57.1 percent) from beyond the arc, but Weber State shot 51.1 percent from the floor and held the Vikings to a single free throw in the final 4:59, making stops and taking away second-chance opportunities Portland State had been converting.
PSU outrebounded WSU 30-22, a season-low for the Wildcats, but Weber State forced 15 turnovers — three in the final 1:16, including a pair by Odum.
“They played a better first half and half of a second half better than us,” Lillard said. “Our team is an extremely resilient team. We’ve weathered the storm so many times this year I think we’re comfortable in that situation. It was just a matter of us getting our minds right and getting a little more aggressive than we had been the whole game.”
Richardson made just one shot and played only eight minutes, all in the second half, but he was a difference-maker for the Wildcats, Rahe said.
Weber State had taken its first lead of the game on back-to-back 3s from junior guard Scott Bamforth to make it 40-39, but Portland State answered the bell with a 10-0 run for its largest lead of the game.
Rahe brought Richardson in for a defensive spark, but he hit a 3 as the Wildcats made their move and made a steal and was fouled for a pair of key free throws with 16 seconds left in the game.
“Energy-wise, defensively, I really thought (Richardson) changed the game for us,” Rahe said. “We were fighting the whole game being aggressive enough, being in attack mode. We put Jordan in and he gave us some great, great energy.”
Lillard scored 38 and 40 points in the first two meetings with Portland State, but the two-time MVP wasn’t happy with his performance in the semifinal until the end.
“I just wanted to make sure we won the game. I’m the leader of the team and I hadn’t played a great game up until the last five minutes,” the junior point guard from Oakland, Calif., said. “I just wanted to block everything out and do everything I could do to help the team, if that was guard Odum and slow him down a little bit, grab a rebound, get a steal, anything. Help somebody else get a shot — anything I could do that was better than what I had done up until that point, that’s what I wanted to do for the last five minutes.”
He’s earned the respect of Odum.
“Damian is unbelievable sometimes,” Odum said. “You can tell he’s worked on his game, spends a lot of time in the gym. It definitely makes you prepare for a game like this — if he’s going to be in the gym I better get my butt in the gym as well. It’s fun because he brings the best out of everybody on the floor.”