OGDEN — If the last meeting between Weber State and Southern Utah is any indication, prepare for ugly.
The Thunderbirds went to a hack attack to try to slow down the Wildcats on Jan. 10 in Cedar City, sending WSU to the free throw line 49 times, though it wasn’t enough to stop Weber State from claiming an 81-74 victory.
“It was one of those physical, knock-down drag-out types of a game,” ’Cats coach Randy Rahe said. “They’re a very tough, physical team and they’re going to make it hard for you. They’re going to fight you, they’re going to battle. It was two physical teams really getting after it and when you have that, sometimes you don’t get a great rhythm to the game.”
Southern Utah may not play pretty, but their current win streak has to be beautiful to first-year head coach Nick Robinson, a former Stanford player and LSU assistant. Robinson’s T-birds will put their five-game winning streak, their longest in 11 years, on the line tonight at 7 p.m. at the Dee Events Center.
Southern Utah (10-12, 8-5 Big Sky) was in the beginnings of a five-game losing skid when it faced Weber State (15-5, 10-2) earlier, but the Thunderbirds have clawed their way back into third place in the conference standings with the help of defending league player of the week Damon Heuir and Kaysville native Jackson Stevenett.
Heuir — Australian for “leading the Big Sky in scoring” — is tied with NAU’s Gabe Rogers at 16.8 points per game for the conference lead, while Stevenett, a Davis High product, is just a tick behind in third at 16.7 ppg.
Stevenett, a 6-foot-4 senior forward, gouged Weber State for a career-high 29 points in their previous meeting and scored 22 in SUU’s 81-79 overtime win over Idaho State on Thursday.
“Stevenett played a terrific game against us,” Rahe said. “I didn’t think we defended him as well as we needed to defend him, but a lot of him had to do with him. He hit some good shots, some tough shots — he’s the kind of player that makes tough shots. Heuir’s the kind of guys, he’s kind of a volume shooter. He’ll miss a few, but it’ll never detract him … eventually, during the game, he’s going to get it going.”
When other players step up and contribute behind Stevenett and Heuir, as they did Thursday with five guys in double figures, the T-birds are dangerous, Rahe said.
Southern Utah leads the Big Sky in rebounding at 38.4 boards per game and is second to WSU in rebounding margin.
“They won those four games in a row at home and that gave them a whole bunch of confidence,” Rahe said. “Now it’s something they can carry over and it carried over to the Idaho State game.”
Weber State is in second place in the Big Sky standings.
Rahe’s primary concern for the Wildcats at the start of the season was leadership; his two senior captains are playing some of their best basketball of the year right now. Shooting guard Scott Bamforth scored 20 points against Northern Colorado on 4 of 7 shooting from beyond the arc and has scored in double digits 15 times to average 13.5 ppg, while forward Frank Otis has turned in the three highest scoring totals of his career in the past three games and averages 9.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
“I don’t ask them to score,” Rahe said of his captains. “I ask them to lead, to give themselves up for the team and that’s what they’ve been doing all year. They haven’t worried about their own deal, they’ve been worried about trying to lead the team by example and keep everybody going.
“It’s nice to see while they’re still doing that, that they play well, but that’s usually what happens when you give up yourself. You don’t worry about yourself, you worry about the team first, and you perform better. That’s kind of what these guys have been doing.”
Both are ranked in the top 10 in the nation in an offensive category: Otis is fourth in field goal percentage (.681), while Bamforth is sixth in free throw percentage (.914).
They’re not alone on the team in shooting ability: WSU is fourth in the country in field goal percentage (.505) and fourth in 3-point percentage (.418). Junior forward Davion Berry ranks sixth in the league in scoring (14.3 ppg).