When senior Osi Nwachukwu, a career 18% 3-point shooter, banked in a straightaway 3 to put Sacramento State up 5-2, it was a sign of things to come.
It was also the start of a run that led the Hornets to lead for 37 minutes of their Big Sky Conference tournament first-round matchup against Weber State and, no matter what runs WSU — or senior Jerrick Harding, more accurately — could throw together, it wasn’t enough.
The No. 9 seed Hornets continued a run of first-round tournament wins while simultaneously ending the most ignominious Weber State season in 15 years, dispatching the No. 8 seed Wildcats 62-54 on Wednesday morning at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho.
Harding capped his illustrious scoring career with 33 points in the loss, finishing with 2,266 career points — 188 ahead of Jeremy Senglin for No. 1 at WSU and seven points behind Northern Colorado’s Jordan Davis for second place on the Big Sky’s all-time list.
Harding shot 10 of 21 from the field but the rest of his teammates combined to shoot 7 of 25.
“I thought Jerrick played terrific, we just couldn’t give him a lot of help tonight,” WSU head coach Randy Rahe said. “We had guys get some shots that wouldn’t go down, missed a lot of easy ones.”
Harding scored eight points of a 12-0 run that spanned both sides of halftime, including a 3-pointer to open the second half followed by a three-point play at the rim. That gave Weber State its first — and ultimately only — lead of the game at 32-30.
“Jerrick showed a lot of heart and desire today. He wasn’t going to be denied, kept finding as much energy as he could ... and he did a heck of a job,” Rahe said. “It’s hard to see those two seniors go. I love those two kids to death, they’ve been great for our program, incredible seniors.”
That lead lasted for 56 seconds before Bryce Fowler knocked down a 3-pointer to put Sac State (16-14) back in the lead for good.
Fowler shot 3 of 5 from deep and was part of a 10-of-23 game from 3 for the Hornets, an unexpected 43.5% after shooting 31% from deep this season.
“They had guys who made shots they haven’t made all season. We had to play the percentages, and you give them credit for making them,” Rahe said.
Harding later scored two buckets to pull the deficit to 44-42 with 8:48 remaining. Both teams went without field goals for more than four minutes before Cody John hit a jumper to make it 48-44, only for Fowler to can another 3-pointer for an insurmountable 51-44 lead with 4:25 left.
Nwachukwu’s early banked 3 was part of a 10-0 run that put Sacramento State up 12-2, a margin Weber finally vanquished early in the second half only to lose touch down the stretch.
Weber’s lack of 3-point makes was a storyline this season and played a factor in how it ended: the Wildcats shot 2 of 14 from deep, lagging behind Sac State’s 10 treys.
Nwachukwu led Sacramento State with 16 points, Fowler scored 15 and Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa added 13.
John finished with eight points for Weber State. Junior Michal Kozak added seven points and 11 rebounds, and sophomore Dima Zdor added six rebounds and three blocks.
Weber State’s 12-20 (.375) mark, including an 8-12 conference run, is the program’s worst since the 2005-06 season when the final Joe Cravens-coached team went 10-17 (.370) and 4-10 in Big Sky play.
“I love coaching this team. They did everything we asked them to do. It was a tough season. We just couldn’t overcome the injuries, I’ll be honest with you,” Rahe said. “We never did put out a healthy team all year long, and it’s too bad for Cody and Jerrick we had to deal with all this stuff.
“But all that stuff was out of our control ... you just do the best you can, and these kids did everything they could to get the most out of what we had. So I’m really proud of them.”
This offseason is likely to bring big changes to Rahe’s roster in ways yet untapped in his 14-year tenure.
“We’ve got a lot of recruiting to do ... we’ve been doing a lot already, we’re going to get started right away,” Rahe said. “We’re excited about signing some guys and that’s what we’ll do from here on out is hit recruiting.”