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Weber State basketball: Verplancken, Wildcats outlast NAU to win regular-season finale in OT

By Brett Hein - Standard-Examiner | Feb 27, 2023

Hannah Johnson, Northern Arizona Athletics

Weber State's Zahir Porter (0) and Handje Tamba (32) box out Northern Arizona's Nik Mains during a free throw Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Weber State men’s basketball had just about everything work against what the Wildcats wanted to happen in Monday night’s regular-season finale at Northern Arizona.

Two players were pulled out of the game due to injury, one of the nation’s best defensive rebounding teams couldn’t grab a board, the Wildcats missed several free throws down the stretch of regulation and top players ended up having to play large minutes.

Somehow despite all that and the outcome not mattering to WSU’s ultimate finish in Big Sky play, the Wildcats claimed a 90-89 overtime victory thanks to remaining hot from the 3-point arc when NAU did not, a career-high from Steven Verplancken Jr., some clutch Dillon Jones basket-making and a fortunate bounce at the overtime buzzer.

Weber State finishes the regular season 17-14 overall and 12-6 in the Big Sky. WSU will open the Big Sky Tournament in the third round at 8 p.m. Monday, March 6, in Boise. Its opponent, the No. 6 seed, will be Sacramento State after the Hornets won late Monday at Portland State.

Verplancken finished with a career-high 26 points, including a 4-of-8 mark from downtown. Jones totaled 24 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, notching his 19th double-double of the season. Zahir Porter added a season-high 15 points with four rebounds and KJ Cunningham added 11 points.

Jalen Cone poured in 29 points for Northern Arizona (9-22, 5-13) but ultimately shot 5 of 18 from the 3-point line. Liam Lloyd scored 16 on a 5-of-9 mark from deep.

NAU finishes with five one-point losses in conference play.

But the Lumberjacks, who did not play last Thursday, were not on their third game in five days like the Wildcats were and it showed early. NAU came out hot from the 3-point line and took a 29-18 lead with 7:30 left in the first half on consecutive 3-pointers from Lloyd and Cone. NAU shot 9 of 16 from deep in the frame.

But the Wildcats got off the mat, despite losing Junior Ballard and Alex Tew to injury in the first half. After the game, WSU head coach Eric Duft said Tew was pulled due to a non-acute knee irritation that wasn’t worth pushing through given the lack of stakes and Ballard was held out after turning an ankle.

Porter’s 15 (with a plus-18 in the plus-minus ledger) and Handje Tamba’s six points and seven rebounds helped WSU withstand the absences.

After getting the deficit back to single digits when Jones scored in the paint, Porter, Jones twice and then Verplancken hit 3s on four consecutive possessions to put Weber up 32-29 on a 14-0 run.

NAU took a 39-37 lead into the locker room but WSU had made it a game by shooting 7 of 13 from behind the arc.

Weber State continued to push in the second half, opening on a 17-6 run capped with 3-pointers from Verplancken and Cunningham, and an old-fashioned three-point play from Jones, for a 54-45 lead.

But NAU stayed in it, largely through continued offensive rebounding. The Lumberjacks pulled down a whopping 21 offensive boards in the contest — “about a month’s worth for us,” Duft said — and outscored the Wildcats 22-3 in second-chance points.

Still, it looked like WSU had the win secured by going up five with 1:01 left on a Jones jumper and with Northern Arizona shooting 3 of 17 from the 3-point line in the second half.

But NAU got it back to a three-point game on two Cone free throws that came after two offensive rebounds and a foul on Dyson Koehler, which fouled him out after 24 minutes.

Cunningham once and Porter twice missed front-end bonus free throws in the final minute. That was briefly saved by Verplancken coming up with a steal and putting in a pair of freebies to put his team up three but, despite the cold half, Lloyd answered with a buzzer-beating 3 to send the game to overtime.

Again WSU appeared to have enough advantage in overtime when Porter and Tamba each completed three-point plays for an 84-78 lead with 3:13 left.

But too many turnovers helped NAU not only stay in it, but take an 86-85 lead on a Xavier Fuller and-one.

Jones answered, as he does, with a three-point play of his own and Verplancken followed with free throws to make it 90-86 with 9 seconds left.

Amazingly, that wasn’t it either. Cone cut it to 90-89 on an and-one drive with 4 seconds left and WSU turned it over just beyond half-court with 2.5 ticks remaining.

Cone then got a solid run-up at a 3-pointer that hit back iron, front iron, rose high and spun off the backboard, hit iron again and fell out.

In the end, WSU shot 12 of 25 from the 3-point line and NAU was 14 of 40.

NAU finishes in ninth and will open the tournament Saturday against No. 10 Idaho, who fired coach Zac Claus not long after the Vandals lost by 15 at home to Montana.

The first four seeds (Eastern Washington, Montana State, Weber State, Montana) remained the same despite MSU going to Cheney and handing EWU its second-straight loss.

NAU 66, WSU 57

Tied 46-46 after three quarters, Weber State women’s basketball shot 2 of 15 from the floor in the fourth quarter and lost its regular-season finale in Ogden.

Weber State finishes the regular season with a 6-24 record after going 2-16 in Big Sky play. The Wildcats, the last-place No. 10 seed, will play at noon Saturday to open the conference tournament in Boise.

Jadyn Matthews totaled 19 points and 11 rebounds. Ava Williams scored 14 points and Daryn Hickok 13.


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