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OGDEN — Monday night's game on the road against Utah State started out similar to most of Weber State's seven losses on the season.
The Wildcats got down big early thanks to a good offensive showing from the Aggies in the opening minutes and some sloppy play on both sides of the ball by Weber State.
Late in the first half, the Aggies built up an 18-point lead — the largest of the half — and appeared as though their shooters simply couldn't miss. Meanwhile, the Wildcats only put 7 points on the board near the midway point of the first half and trailed 43-29 at halftime.
But unlike those disappointing losses, some by blowouts and some in close games, Eric Duft's team continued to show a trait that all head coaches love to see from their players: They didn't give up.
The Wildcats scratched and clawed their way back in many of those previous games, but they ultimately ended in defeat. But against an undefeated Utah State team searching to go 10-0 for the first time in school history, Weber State's effort and levelheadedness got the team a win.
Throughout the first 11 games of the season, Duft's team was known for starting out of the gate somewhat slowly. Aside from a couple games against Division II teams, Weber State often fell down early as opposing teams rattled off quick buckets against a Wildcats defense that was trying to find itself and an offense that couldn't buy a basket.
But in last weekend's win against Cal Poly, the Wildcats woke up earlier than normal and led at halftime by 15 points, then went on to rout the Mustangs for their first true road victory of the year. After a performance like that, Duft and his staff hoped it would be a turning point for his team that's still learning to play with and off each other.
Then Weber State ran into the somewhat surprising juggernaut of Utah State, an offensive-powered team with big wins over four West Coast Conference teams and in-state rival Utah Valley. The Aggies have five players averaging double-digits in points and are led by a dynamic combo of guard Steven Ashworth (18.2 points per game) and forward Taylor Funk (15.6 points per game).
Utah State head coach Ryan Odom and his team rely a lot on perimeter shooting, similar to Weber State, and it didn't take long before the Aggies built up a commanding lead. The Aggies shot 63% from 3-point range in the first half, and many of their shots came from a few feet behind the arc. It became clear the Weber State guards would need to play a tighter defense on the outside.
"They're so good on offense," Duft said about Utah State following his team's big win. "You always talk about rhythm when you're playing offense, but I think you have to get into a rhythm guarding those guys."
Whatever rhythm the Wildcats were looking for they found in the second half. It was another example of a hard-working team that didn't give up, and they finally got the result they were looking for after so long.
Duft's team played smarter and quicker on defense; they forced several missed shots from the Aggies that had mostly gone in during the first half of the game. The offense also found a rhythm and guys who shot OK to above average suddenly shot lights-out.
"Second half, we were a lot more solid; we were able to guard them one-on-one better," Duft said. "We've got the shooters. They missed some 3s, but I thought they were heavily contested; we got them out of rhythm.
"That was really the difference. And then, yeah, obviously we stepped up and made shots. We had 17 assists tonight on 28 baskets; we're playing the right way, so I couldn't be more proud of these guys."
For a team that lost three of its first four games and followed it up with a four-game losing streak shortly after, the Wildcats have come a long way from the start of the season — and it's not even halfway done. But in the span of three days, Weber State picked up two key, confidence-building wins that should help boost morale as the nonconference schedule winds down and teams get set for league play.
Knocking off an undefeated team looking to make school history is big for a program, and the never-give-up Wildcats will put their mettle to the test against another in-state opponent Thursday at BYU. But Duft and his team should feel proud of where they are, especially given where they came from, and the win Monday night showcased that.