Saturday's trip to Northern Arizona had the trappings of what one might expect to be a battle for Weber State men's basketball.
Senior center Zach Braxton was in a boot after what appeared to be a severely sprained ankle Thursday, a game in which Weber State scored only 53 points and lost at Southern Utah. The afternoon matinee meant less time to travel, rest and prepare. And, NAU appeared to be improving, having already doubled its conference wins from a season ago.
Junior guards Jerrick Harding and Cody John had other ideas.
Harding scored 29 points, John added a career-high 25 points and Weber State tallied its 20th victory in the last 22 games against the Lumberjacks, winning 86-71 at the Walkup Skydome.
"I told them today, 'we're short-handed. We're missing Zach, we're missing Doc (Nelson), we're going to play four freshman. We need to be the hardest-playing team in the Big Sky tonight,'" WSU head coach Randy Rahe said. "And they might've been ... it was a little bit of a gutsy win tonight."
Weber State (15-9, 9-4 Big Sky) took control in the final eight minutes of the first half after an Isaiah Thomas layup cut WSU's lead to 20-18.
Sophomore forward Michal Kozak, who got the start in place of the injured Braxton, started the run with a lefty push shot in the post, absorbing a foul and making his free throw. Kozak finished with five points, a team-high eight rebounds and two blocks.
John then spent several possessions slashing into the paint for scores and Harding hit a pair of 3-pointers. It amounted to a 17-3 run after layups from Donatas Kupsas and Jordan Dallas late in the half.
WSU also clamped down defensively in the first half, holding NAU (7-16, 5-8) to 30-percent shooting and 3 of 11 from deep, taking a 46-27 lead into halftime.
Kupsas, Dallas and Dima Zdor picked up extra minutes in Braxton's absence. Zdor finished with six points, three rebounds and a block in 12 minutes. Dallas played a season-high six minutes.
"I'm so proud of JD," Rahe said. "He was ready to play. He played good defense, got a rebound and scored a bucket for us. I thought it was huge and our guys loved it. They love JD."
Both teams raced out of halftime to bucket after bucket and WSU led 59-42 after just four minutes. Ted McCree, who was the Lumberjacks' only offense in the first half, then hit a pair of jumpers to key a small NAU run, cutting it to 63-50 with 11:53 left.
That's as close as it would get. John and Israel Barnes answered that run with consecutive 3-pointers, then John scored on a transition floater and another 3 to put WSU up 76-54 with 7:56 remaining.
Barnes finished with 11 points. Brekkott Chapman totaled six points and six rebounds, limited to 18 minutes by a tight personal whistle — otherwise, the game featured a modest total of 27 fouls.
Harding added five rebounds, four assists and two steals. Weber State shot 54.1 percent from the field.
McCree led NAU with 17 points, making his first three 3-pointers of the game but missing his final six. Outside of McCree, the Lumberjacks shot 1 of 11 from deep. Bernie Andre added 13 points in the loss.
Weber State next returns home to face Montana (Feb. 14) and Montana State (Feb. 16).