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SALT LAKE CITY — Heading into Saturday’s game as 11.5-point underdogs and looking to rebound from a 27-point loss to Utah Valley University just three days prior, the stakes were high for Weber State in facing arguably its toughest test of a still-young season.
An already tough task grew more daunting, though, when it was announced that starters Zach Braxton (Achilles strain) and Brekkott Chapman (foot sprain) would be sidelined for the second act of Saturday’s inaugural Zions Bank Beehive Classic at Vivint Arena due to ailments suffered in the previous contest against UVU.
As a result, guard Dusty Baker and center Jordan Dallas were pushed into the starting lineup for their first times this season.
In doing so, Dallas, a 6-foot-10 sophomore from Long Beach, California, logged a season-high 20 minutes while Baker, a 6-foot-4 guard from Coto De Caza, California, played all but two of a possible 40 minutes to surpass his previous career-high set on the same date two years earlier against UVU.
For Weber State (4-5), a slimmed rotation effectively consisted of seven players (guard Riley Court logged just a single minute), including three freshmen — one of whom, starting forward Michal Kozak, also logged a personal best in playing time (34 minutes) in his nine-game career.
Beating the odds is already tough, but tougher still when playing without a full deck of cards.
“I told our team … we need some guys to step up, to play harder, a little tougher, a little more together and we can go out and do this,” WSU coach Randy Rahe told the Standard-Examiner following Saturday’s game. “I thought they played that way (Saturday). I was really proud of their effort.”
Though it wasn’t the result they had hoped for, a hard-fought 74-68 loss to BYU (8-2) did reveal a few positives for the Wildcats, chief among them being the continued growth of sophomore point guard Jerrick Harding.
Through nine games, the Wichita, Kansas, native has emerged as the engine of a Weber State offense that lost two of its three leading scorers from last season. On Saturday, Harding dazzled in front of an announced 7,729 at Vivint Arena, putting his strong left hand on display early and often as part of a first-half performance that saw him score half of his team’s 32 first-half points.
“I feel like I had to step up and be that leader,” Harding said. “I’m the point guard and had to set the tone from the start.”
The latest in a recent parade of unheralded-turned-spectacular players at Weber State, Harding played the entire second half of Saturday’s game before finishing with a game-high 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting from the floor. The 6-foot-1 guard also added four rebounds and two assists.
“We had quite a night trying to guard him,” BYU head coach Dave Rose conceded to the Salt Lake Tribune after the game.
For a team that was already struggling with depth and inexperience when whole, the absences of Braxton and Chapman, both upperclassmen, only slimmed Weber State’s margin for error. For their part, the duo represents half of the team’s double-digit scorers, and leads in separate individual categories such as rebounds and blocks.
Against BYU, the absence of Chapman caused a ripple effect that hurt the team’s court spacing and efficiency from three as the junior (52.9 percent from three on 4.3 attempts per game) led a team that ranked seventh nationally in 3-point percentage (43.1) ahead of Saturday’s game — wherein they shot just 25 percent (6-24) from distance.
Though Chapman’s replacement, Baker, couldn’t replicate the former’s long-distance shooting, he did provide a fully invested two-way effort that filled up the stat sheet: 13 points, seven rebounds, four steals and three assists.
Operating from the elbows, the 24-year-old guard — who’s proven himself as a capable secondary ball handler and someone who can guard multiple positions — kept the offense apace by spacing his defender to the perimeter and slinging passes to willing cutters. While his outside shooting was off-target (1-5) against BYU, Baker found success scoring off the dribble in the second half, repeatedly driving past the Cougars’ perimeter defenders and finishing around the basket. Until the final minute, anyway.
Coming out of a timeout with 53 seconds left and trailing 68-66, the senior drove the lane and sent a floater toward the hoop that was blocked by BYU’s Yoeli Childs.
“I tried to make something out of nothing,” Baker told the Salt Lake Tribune in reference to his improvisational shot in crunch time. “I thought there was a little bit of contact, but (we) couldn’t get the whistles, but that’s all right.”
Kozak finished with 11 points and a team-high eight rebounds, while Ryan Richardson hit two 3-pointers as part of a 10-point performance for the senior. He also added four rebounds, three assists and three steals, and recorded Weber State’s only block of the game.
Despite being undermanned, undersized and, at times, a little underestimated according to Rose, Weber State gave itself a chance to win a game in which it never trailed by double-digits.
“Both teams executed well, and maybe there was a little bit of frustration because of an expectation that isn’t real,” Rose admitted after the game, before adding, “But when guys are shorthanded, teams beat other good teams. They played great.”