‘It really hurts’: Weber State gives up lead, drops heartbreaker to Montana State in Big Sky semifinals
BOISE, Idaho — RaeQuan Battle was conditioned not to miss free throws. As a kid, his mother made him do five push-ups every time he missed.
The sophomore shooting guard and Washington transfer paraded to the line in the second half Friday against Weber State, including two trips after being fouled on 3-pointers. He finished 13 of 14 for Montana State, including 11 of 12 in the second half.
But it was the one miss that kept the outcome in doubt until the end at the Big Sky Conference tournament semifinals inside Idaho Central Arena.
With MSU leading 68-66, Battle was sent to the line with 14.5 seconds left. He missed the first shot and made the second.
With no timeouts left, WSU senior guard Koby McEwen took the ball up the court, looped to the left wing and put up a 3-pointer. On line, but it hit back rim.
WSU freshman Dyson Koehler got enough of a hand on it to tap it back out, where freshman Dillon Jones fought to corral it at the top of the arc. After he secured the loose ball, he turned toward the basket and saw nobody was in front of him. With two stellar games under his belt for the tournament, Jones cast up a high-arcing 3.
Right rim, back rim, and out.
Jones, McEwen and senior center Dontay Bassett crumpled to the court and remained there for a full minute.
No. 1 Montana State will play in the tournament title game for the second straight year, defeating No. 4 Weber State 69-66.
MSU head coach Danny Sprinkle said he was calling for his team to commit a foul and prevent McEwen from shooting but, absent a timeout, that communication was lost and the final seconds played out.
“I’ve seen him through his entire career, him make that shot so many times,” Sprinkle said. “The basketball gods were with us tonight.”
It’s a bitter end for a 21-win Weber State team that rattled off the best start to a season in 36 years. The Wildcats put together perhaps their best two defensive efforts in high-stakes games in the two contests in Boise but were undone in the second half by a series of missed jumpers, paint floaters that rattled out, and untimely misses at the free-throw line.
Rahe and Jones later took the press-conference rostrum with red, moist eyes.
“We left it out there. We did exactly what coaches asked us to do, played as hard as we possibly could. We stopped the MVP of the league. We did everything you’d say you’re supposed to do to win a game, and the ball just doesn’t go in,” Jones said.
“In the game of basketball, you’ve just got to take the bad with the good. That’s just how it goes.”
Jones finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals for Weber State (21-12). McEwen’s college career ended with 17 points and three steals on 3-of-11 shooting. Bassett scored 11 points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked three shots in his final outing.
“I’m really proud of our kids,” Rahe said. “I love them to death. They’ve given us their heart and soul all season long, and it hurts. It really hurts.”
Battle’s free-throw performance gave him 17 points for Montana State (26-7). Amin Adamu scored 15 points and could not miss in the second half. He made six of his team’s 12 field goals after halftime, with reserve big Great Osobor adding three makes. Xavier Bishop finished with 14 points and Osobor had 10.
Weber State’s pain in this one: leading for nearly the first 33 minutes before Battle and company started stacking up free throws while JJ Overton and company missed key takes down the stretch.
WSU went to Bassett to open the game against league MVP Jubrile Belo, also the defensive player of the year, but who is hobbled by injury. Bassett scored twice in the post and hit a 3 over Belo’s reach to put the Wildcats up 7-2 early.
The hampered Belo was largely a non-factor, finishing with six points, five rebounds, four turnovers and a team-low minus-11 in the plus-minus ledger, only one of two players in the negative for MSU.
That lead got as big as 13-5 on a Seikou Sisoho Jawara drive, and 20-13 on a Sisoho Jawara 3-pointer, while WSU seemed to get deflections or strips on most MSU possessions. Bishop hit all three of his 3-pointers in the first half to keep the Bobcats afloat.
After Bishop’s final 3, McEwen answered with a deep make of his own then, after a timeout, got a perimeter steal and raced to a huge, two-handed transition dunk.
Between his full-speed momentum and possibly absorbing an uncalled foul when Battle challenged the dunk from behind, McEwen recoiled up and back with his legs and inadvertently hit Bishop in the face with his foot.
Still, he was assessed a technical foul after video review. Battle made both free throws to stem a run and cut WSU’s lead to 25-21.
Jones later drained a stepback 3 to put WSU up 30-23, and the Wildcats took a 37-31 lead into halftime after Bassett again scored over Belo in the final minute.
Jones scored on a putback rebound while fouled, made his free throw, then knocked in a 3-pointer to open the second half and give WSU its largest lead at 43-35 with 17:25 left.
He again converted a three-point play to stop an MSU run and make it 48-41 at 13:46.
But five minutes later, Adamu hit a second-chance 3-pointer and Osobor scored in the paint while fouled. He made his free throw after a timeout, capping a 15-5 run to give Montana State a 55-53 lead, its first of the game, with 7:34 left.
The Bobcats led until a pair of McEwen free throws returned the lead to Weber State at 60-59 with 3:57 left, but that was the last time WSU would hold an advantage. McEwen was whistled for a questionable foul on the next possession, a Battle 3-point attempt from the corner. Battle made all three freebies.
Trading free throws, McEwen made two more to knot the game 64-64 with 2 minutes left. An Osobor paint shot returned the lead to the Bobcats and Overton missed a floater, but WSU forced a shot-clock violation with 40 seconds left to keep it a one-score game.
McEwen missed a jumper, Battle made two free throws, and Jones put back a missed McEwen layup with 14.5 seconds left — which was WSU’s first FG in 6 minutes.
WSU shot 8 of 28 from the floor in the second half after going 15 of 26 in the first half.
“I thought we missed a lot of open shots,” Rahe said. “I had no problem with our offense. I thought we took good shots, we got good shots, and they just didn’t go in down the stretch. We had some really good looks. Sometimes that’s the way the ball bounces.”
Jones’ putback set up the final sequence, with Battle’s lone free-throw miss and Weber’s heartbreakingly close misses.
“I knew the time and score, I knew we didn’t have time to get it to another person, so I just shot it. And I just missed. Sometimes it just goes like that. I can’t do anything about it,” Jones said. “I’ll just get back in the gym and keep improving as a shooter, like I did this past year. Keep that mindset and keep going.”
Jones and Sisoho Jawara are starters set to return next season. WSU will have at least five players to add to next year’s roster, with six known departures (five seniors and Donatas Kupsas) and one freshman currently signed in Las Vegas wing Chris Dockery.
In the meantime, WSU fell short of making its first Big Sky title-game appearance since 2017 and time will tell if an event like The Basketball Classic (formerly the College Insider Tournament) will have interest in the Wildcats.