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Weber State basketball stymies Northern Colorado in 82-63 blowout road win

By BRETT HEIN - Standard-Examiner | Feb 3, 2024

Texas Powers, UNC Athletics

Weber State's Dillon Jones (2) rises to shoot against Northern Colorado's Riley Abercrombie (22) on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in Greeley, Colo.

Travel-wise, the Northern Arizona-Northern Colorado basketball road trip is considered the toughest in the Big Sky Conference in total distance and in the travel arrangements it requires. And entering this weekend, those two teams were a combined 13-1 at home before playing Weber State men’s basketball.

Saturday took the Wildcats to Greeley, Colorado, in a trip that features four different hotels in four nights, to face a Bears squad boasting the Big Sky’s best offense in efficiency and in raw points per game (82).

Given that, Weber State made a statement. The Wildcats held Northern Colorado to long, inefficient stretches of basketball, answered each small push the home team created, led by double digits for the final 15:55 and blew out the homestanding Bears 82-63 on Saturday night.

Dillon Jones struggled to make paint shots but still led Weber State (14-9, 5-5 Big Sky) with a good performance, finishing with 21 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals and zero turnovers, shooting 7 of 21. Jones passed both Jimmie Watts and Willie Sojourner to move into seventh on WSU’s career scoring list.

The rest of the Wildcats picked him up, shooting 22 of 38. Steven Verplancken Jr. hit three 3s and scored 20 points, Dyson Koehler added 14 points and eight rebounds, and KJ Cunningham turned in a resplendent bench performance of 11 points, four rebounds, two assists and three steals.

Texas Powers, UNC Athletics

Weber State's Alex Tew (20) and Dillon Jones, right, track a rebound against Northern Colorado's Brock Wisne, center, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in Greeley, Colo.

Northern Colorado (13-9, 6-3) star Saint Thomas got his, totaling 29 points and 10 rebounds while drawing whistles en route to a 13-of-13 night at the foul line. He made seven field goals while the rest of the Bears tallied 15. Big man Brock Wisne scored 13 points.

“Even early on, the shots they were making were tough and it was going to be hard to continue to make those all night,” Duft said. “I thought we were guarding the ball. Alex Tew was awesome tonight, his ball screen defense … we were playing more to our identity.”

Coaches in football and basketball often focus on the handful of minutes on either side of halftime, and that’s where Weber State won Saturday’s game.

Wisne canned a wing 3-pointer to continue a back-and-forth battle by getting Northern Colorado a 25-23 lead with 7:35 left in the first half. The Bears were 5 of 6 from downtown at that moment.

WSU ended the half on a 13-5 run when Viljami Vartiainen hit a stepback 3, Verplancken connected on a deep triple from straightaway, and three free throws put the Wildcats ahead 36-30 at the break.

The Wildcats then built an 11-0 run early in the second half to take control. Koehler tipped in a missed Jones shot, Jones converted a tough drive and then corralled a steal-to-dunk sequence, Verplancken hit a 3 and Alex Tew scored in the post to put Weber State up 49-32 with 16:45 left.

Weber State’s on-ball defense, vastly improved from the stretch that saw the Wildcats go 1-5 over six games, helped force Northern Colorado into a slew of tough, missed two-pointers. At one point, the Bears were 4 of 17 on two-pointers and, after starting 5 of 6 from the 3-point line, they finished 1 of their last 13.

Delineated by half, WSU was 4 of 8 from distance in the second half while UNCo shot 0 of 8.

Thomas ended the run after Tew’s post bucket by flipping in a tough bank shot. It was his team’s first field goal in 7 1/2 minutes and second field goal in 11 1/2 minutes. That happened during a stretch where WSU held UNCo to 13 points across 16 minutes.

Koehler hit two 3-pointers Saturday and both were of the answer variety. His first came there (after Thomas ended the Bears’ field-goal drought) and the second came after a short rally to cut it to 13 points, draining a straightaway 3 off a curl to make the score 56-40 with 11:37 left.

“Guys were getting more confident, we’re running our stuff, moving the ball, finding the open guy,” Duft said. “We had guys step up and make some shots. It was just a good night.”

The game slowed to a crawl as both teams tired and as WSU intentionally took its possessions into the final seconds of the shot clock. Two Thomas free throws got the score to 65-52 with 4:30 left.

That’s when Cunningham hit a dagger.

A Northern Colorado press nearly forced a 10-second violation and made the Wildcats convert two tough inbound passes, then deflected the ball ping-pong style around the floor. Jones finally took the ball securely into the post and tossed to Cunningham well behind the 3-point line on the wing.

Cunningham buried it as the shot clock expired, making it 68-52 with four minutes left.

“Monday, (Cunningham) wasn’t very good in practice and he and I had words. He’s a valuable player because of his skill set, his intelligence on both ends of the court,” Duft said. “When he came back Tuesday, he was a different person and his performance reflected it. Thursday and tonight, he was locked in and ready to go.”

The Wildcats committed just two turnovers in the first 34 minutes of the game before Northern Colorado used a full-court press to create five in the final six minutes.

Weber State completed the road-trip sweep to hand Northern Colorado its third league loss and, on the same night, Montana and Montana State each took their fourth conference defeat. Montana State fell to Idaho at home Saturday after beating Eastern Washington on Thursday, and Montana lost touch against first-place EWU (8-1) in the second half to lose Saturday.

WSU returns home to host Portland State (5-4 in league play, a half-game ahead of WSU) on Thursday, Feb. 8, and Sacramento State (2-7) on Saturday, Feb. 10, looking to avenge two of the road losses that put the Wildcats behind in the conference standings.

“We’ll get back to Ogden about 3 o’clock or so (Sunday), wake up Monday and it all starts again, so we better be ready to play,” Duft said. “That’s what’s expected, and we’ve got a bunch that wants to do that.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reported Dillon Jones totaled nine rebounds, as determined by the official box score at game’s end. A video and statistical review of the game later resulted in a correction that adjusted Jones’ rebound total to 11, and the story has been updated to reflect that change.

UNCO 73, WSU 63

Weber State women’s basketball competed from tip to buzzer Saturday afternoon and cut its deficit to one point in the fourth quarter, but again got buried too deep in the 3-point margin and fell at home to Northern Colorado, dropping their fourth straight.

Fifth-year forward Jadyn Matthews led Weber State (6-17, 3-7 Big Sky) with 14 points, six rebounds and four assists. Freshman Taylor Smith added 13 points and junior guard Kendra Parra racked up 11 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.

For Northern Colorado (10-10, 5-4), Delaynie Byrne hit five 3s on the way to 19 points and seven rebounds. Hannah Simental added 16 points and the Bears shot 10 of 24 from the 3-point line while holding WSU to a 4-of-15 mark.

Weber State went on a 15-3 run in the fourth quarter in which Smith made a transition 3, Daryn Hickok nabbed a steal for a layup, and Laura Taylor and Amelia Raidaveta each scored in the paint to cut Northern Colorado’s lead to 59-58 with 3:51 left.

But after a timeout, the Bears got 3-pointers from Simental and Gabi Fields to stop the bleeding and spark what became a 14-5 run to end the ballgame.


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