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Weber State pulls away in 2nd half to close out Northern Arizona 76-60

Weber State forward Dillon Jones lifts off to dunk the ball in a game against Northern Arizona that the Wildcats won 76-60 on Dec. 31, 2022.

Weber State forward Dillon Jones lifts off to dunk the ball in a game against Northern Arizona that the Wildcats won 76-60 on Dec. 31, 2022. (Robert Casey, Weber State Athletics)


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OGDEN — Weber State's team leader Dillon Jones didn't record his first points of the game until nearly eight minutes into the second half. All he'd done to that point was pull down double-digit rebounds and dish out five assists.

Northern Arizona's defense keyed in on Jones after he put up a career-high 26 points in the Wildcats' conference-opening win over Northern Colorado a few days before. But the rest of the team rallied to keep Weber State close with the Lumberjacks; they just needed something to help them pull away.

NAU pulled down a rebound and began to bring the ball up the court, but Jones snuck in, stole the ball and broke away for an emphatic dunk to spark his team, the bench and the entire arena. From there, the Wildcats went on to win 76-60 on New Year's Eve to start conference play 2-0.

Jones finished the game with a near double-double — something that's becoming a more regular thing from him — on 9 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. All of his points came in the final 13 minutes of the game, but his effort was felt throughout the contest.

"I wasn't going to fight the game and try to score when it's obvious they're (Northern Arizona's defenders) keying on me," Jones said. "That would be very selfish of me. ... Good players score eventually — like, it's gonna come to you, so I didn't have to fight the game."

The first half of the game was more of a back-and-forth affair between the two teams. Northern Arizona started out shooting hot, and Weber State missed multiple defensive assignments. The Lumberjacks led for most of the first half, thanks to some accurate 3-point shooting from the guard line, but their biggest lead was never more than 8 points.

In the last five minutes of the first half, however, NAU cooled off significantly and Weber State kept the steady offense coming. Steven Verplancken, who finished the night with 14 points on 7-of-14 shooting but failed to make a 3-pointer, got the Wildcats the lead on a driving layup that he finished right into a bigger Lumberjack defender.

Head coach Eric Duft's team finished the first half on an 18-3 run and went into the locker room leading 37-30.

Weber State didn't shoot as well from 3-point range as the team has in the past; the Wildcats were just 5-of-16 from behind the arc for the entire game. Guard Junior Ballard had the hot hand from deep for the game and made 4-of-6 and had his teams' only made shots from deep until guard KJ Cunningham hit one just under the five-minute mark in the second half.

Ballard finished the game as the Wildcats' leading scorer with 16 points after beginning the season in the starting lineup but has since transitioned to a quality asset off the bench.

"That's been the biggest thing for me, just trusting," Ballard said about his shot selection and increased efficiency since coming off the bench. "Trusting that it's gonna come back, trusting that we have guys that are going to get it to me, and guys that are going to be ready to shoot when I don't have it."

In the second half, the Lumberjacks, once again, came out firing and quickly closed the small lead the Wildcats had created going into the break. But Jones sent the team into another gear with his powerful dunk, and Weber State pulled away for the big win.

Everyone on the offense got involved, and each player seemed to have his own highlight-reel play. Zahir Porter finished with 9 points and some big finishes at the rim, Alex Tew scored 9 points, while throwing down a couple big dunks in the process. For a team that's built to win on the strength of its defense, the offense put on a show throughout the game.

But while the offense showed out, the Wildcats exhibited an improved defense.

"I saw a little different look in their eye on the bench," Duft said about his team's big turnaround performance in the second half. "... I thought about midway through the second half, I really saw a difference, and I thought we really took control of the game then with our defense, and that's what we're going to have to be.

"We're a team that has to move the ball offensively, but we're going to have success by defense and rebounding."

As the games get more meaningful, the Wildcats will look to build on wins like Saturday and compete for a conference title.

"We controlled the game," Duft said. "It just took us a while to kind of get into the fight and we had some uncharacteristic missed assignments defensively; not following the game plan. But once we got that worked out, (I was) proud of our team."

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