Big Sky basketball tournament: Hot start propels Weber State men past Sacramento State
In the five games preceding Weber State men’s basketball’s conference tournament opener this week in Boise, Idaho, each of the five winning teams surpassed 80 points to advance.
In Monday’s nightcap, Weber State picked apart Sacramento State in the first half and appeared well on its way to making it a perfect 6 of 6 before the game devolved into the same slog that the two teams played twice in the regular season.
Still, the No. 3 Wildcats made enough big shots and secured a season hat trick over the No. 6 Hornets by turning away their second-half push to win 70-64 in the third round of the Big Sky Conference tournament.
Weber State (18-14) advances to face No. 2 Montana State (23-9) at 9 p.m. Tuesday in a semifinal that will air on ESPN2.
“When we had to, we ran good offense and made some timely baskets,” WSU head coach Eric Duft said on the postgame TV stream.
Junior guard KJ Cunningham led the way in the first half as WSU diced through Sac State’s perimeter defense and made just about everything they took in the paint, often stopping short of 7-foot-1 Callum McRae and dropping in a variety of floaters and push shots.
Cunningham hit a pair of those, plus a tough turnaround on a long two and a 3-pointer as well in the first half. Star forward Dillon Jones didn’t have his best shooting night (4 of 12 in the first half) but all other Wildcats were 14 of 16 and the Wildcats dashed to a 41-25 halftime lead.
“We had some guys step up and make some key shots early that kind of got us going, and offensively we were a lot better than we had been,” Duft said.
Cunningham finished with a career-high 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, his only miss a tough sideways floater attempt to beat the shot clock in the second half that rolled around and out. He also committed zero turnovers in 30 minutes.
“KJ was unbelievable,” WSU assistant coach Eric Daniels said on postgame radio. “He hit some big-time shots at the end of shot clocks, he was able to get downhill and get to his midrange.”
Steven Verplancken Jr. also scored 16 points, shooting 7 of 9, and center Alex Tew added an efficient nine points and four rebounds.
The second half turned into a game of cat and mouse as Sacramento State began playing big man Akol Mawien alongside McRae in the paint. Those things did slow Weber State offensively (though the Wildcats were still 10 of 23 in the half and committed only six turnovers for the game).
Jones came alive to help WSU break out of a 5-minute, 20-second scoring drought by converting a tough baseline reverse layup with just more than 11 minutes to go.
A minute later, he patiently waited for a rolling Tew through the paint on a drive and dished to the big man for a dunk-and-one that put WSU up 54-41.
The Hornets (14-18) stuck with it and Mawien scored inside on consecutive possessions to make it a single-digit game. Cunningham answered with another big make, a straightaway 3 to beat the shot clock on a swing-swing pass from Jones, rattling it home for a 61-49 lead with 3:45 left.
Weber State still wasn’t out of the woods, though.
“I think we got caught playing time and score a little bit. We had a lead and kind of wanted to milk that and not take quick shots,” Daniels said. “We could’ve been a little more aggressive … we had some great looks from the guys we want taking them.”
Jones dropped in his only 3 of the night for another timely basket, making the score 66-54 with 2:20 left. Jones finished with 18 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Sacramento State got it to 66-61 with 47 seconds left. A fantastic possession saw Weber take the shot clock to zero, beat a perimeter trap and get Verplancken a wide-open 3 on the right side, but it hit back iron.
The Hornets answered by throwing to McRae inside and he completed an and-one to make the final minute interesting. McRae led his team with 16 points and eight rebounds.
But Sac State had to foul four times to get Weber onto the free-throw line, and Cunningham and Jones each went 2 of 2 to seal it. Zach Chappell hit a 3-pointer for the Hornets just before the buzzer for the final margin. He scored 14 points in his final college game.
Weber State won the turnover battle 15-6 and points off turnovers 20-5.
“We talked about being in gaps and being active, and the guys came out right away and got quite a few deflections,” Daniels said. “That kind of carried us through … Dyson (Koehler) got his hands on a couple balls and got some run-out layups.”
Weber State improves to 49-10 all-time against Sacramento State and has now beaten the Hornets seven straight times after a defeat in the 2020 conference tournament.
The Wildcats advance to the tournament semifinals for the third time in five seasons where they will look to end a five-year tournament title game drought. WSU won the tournament in 2014 and 2016, and appeared to have it again in 2017 before coughing up a last-minute lead and losing in overtime. The Wildcats haven’t gone to the championship game since.
Facing WSU is a semifinal rematch with a machine-like Montana State after the two basically played the de facto championship game a year ago, a 69-66 MSU semifinal victory.
“A lot of respect for their program. They’re defending Big Sky tournament champions for a reason … they’re very good, they’re very well-coached,” Duft said.
This season, Montana State has won 11 of its last 12 with its only loss a 73-63 defeat at Weber State on Feb. 9.
In Monday’s other third-round game, No. 4 Montana put away Idaho State 83-74 to reach a 6:30 p.m. Tuesday semifinal against No. 9 Northern Arizona. Montana is 8-1 in its last nine games.