In the opening minutes of Weber State men’s basketball’s game Wednesday at Utah Valley, it seemed like the Wildcats would never stop turning the ball over and would struggle to get good shots.
Seven turnovers in the first 4:13 of play is a bad recipe for a team searching for their first Division I win of the season after WSU worked through various injuries that kept practice time and rotations inconsistent.
Jerrick Harding helped bury that early incompetence, and then some.
The senior guard scored 36 points — 27 of them in the second half — to help carry Weber State to a 72-67 win over the homestanding Wolverines at the UCCU Center in Orem.
“Jerrick got going,” WSU head coach Randy Rahe said, while explaining that Harding is still not all the way back, conditioning-wise, after a foot injury sidelined him for all of preseason camp.
“What a heck of a performance. He’s a tough nut. He knew we needed him tonight and he came up with big play after big play. He was fantastic.”
A 28-24 halftime deficit grew to 34-26 early in the second half as UVU used an 11-2 run to build its largest lead of the game.
Rahe called timeout with 16:12 left and a team struggling to find offensive rhythm all season burst out of that break and began ripping the nets.
Harding hit a 3-pointer out of the timeout. That began a seven-minute stretch in which Weber State (2-5) made six of its next seven 3-point attempts.
Judah Jordan, KJ Cunningham and Michal Kozak all hit from deep, and Harding twice, during what became a 17-2 run that gave the Wildcats a 48-40 lead with 8:57 left.
Harding then drove the lane and scored while fouled, converting his free throw for a 51-44 lead with 8:01 left. Remarkably, that was the first free throw attempted in the game by either team.
Utah Valley (4-6) made a run with just more than four minutes left when an Emmanuel Olojakpoke dunk and a TJ Washington layup cut it to 57-55.
That’s when freshman big man Tim Fuller asserted himself. Fuller tipped in an Israel Barnes miss in transition and blocked a shot at the rim in successive plays.
Cunningham followed by hitting a floater to beat the shot clock and Harding hit a long jumper to hold a 63-58 lead with 1:51 left.
Free-throw numbers ballooned from there as UVU tried to play catch-up. Harding (7 of 8) and Cunningham (2 of 2) went 9 of 10 from the line in the final minute to bring home the victory.
“I was really proud of our guys,” Rahe said. “We’ve been through some tough times with injuries ... these kids earned that win. They came back yesterday and had one of our best practices of the year. They were ready to go and they earned it tonight.”
Fuller finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 18 minutes off the bench. With Harding’s 36 points coming on only 19 field-goal attempts, he and Fuller combined to shoot 17 of 26 from the floor.
“Timmy did a really good job ... got us some baskets inside, rebounded the ball and just does what he does — plays really hard and physical,” Rahe said. “He’s getting better, every game he’s improved. I thought it was a good team win, we had a lot of guys contribute.”
Every Wildcat who played recorded at least two rebounds to help WSU win the battle on the boards, and Cunningham’s four assists led a group of six players to record at least two assists. WSU assisted on 18 of 27 field goals.
Washington led Utah Valley with 18 points but on 6-of-21 shooting, connecting on a handful of deep 3-pointers but finding little success otherwise. Fellow guard Trey Woodbury added 14 points; the two combined to shoot 4 of 16 from deep.
“We knew we had to shrink that floor and be in those gaps. Those two guards are so dynamic and so quick, if they see any kind of space at all, they get to the rim or get someone a shot,” Rahe said. “Our team defense was pretty good ... now we can start to become a more connected basketball team and we’re going to grow from here.”
After home teams won the first 11 games in this series, road teams have traded wins and this marked WSU’s first win at UVU in program history. (Weber is now 6-1 against UVU in Ogden, 1-5 in Orem.)
The Wildcats return home at 7 p.m. Saturday to face Westcliff University.