'We'll be battle tested': Finding ways to win now benefits Wildcats come March

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OGDEN — It was the tale of two games for Weber State's men's basketball team last week.

On Thursday night, the Wildcats' offense burst onto the scene and set a season-high for points scored in a half with 51 against the visiting Portland State Vikings. They cooled off in the second half — only shooting 50% from the field instead of the 64% like they did in the first — and set a season-high for points in a game in a 84-68 win.

It was an offensive showing that the coaching staff and players knew was possible, and one they'd shown glimpses of throughout the season. Prior to that game, Weber State had surpassed 80 points against a Division I opponent only once — a 81-72 win over conference foe Northern Colorado.

For the season, the Wildcats average just 66.2 points per game — not a number that typically wins a lot of college basketball games despite only allowing opponents to score 66.6 points per contest. With those numbers being practically the same, it's not difficult to see why the team's record is 10-10 on the year with 11 regular season games left to play.

But against the Vikings, head coach Eric Duft's team showed how lethal it can be when the offense is clicking. The Wildcats provided a balanced offensive attack and five players scored in double figures; only two players average double figures in points on the season.

Of note, the Wildcats had 18 assists on 31 made buckets — an assist rate of 58% and well above the season average of 11 assists per game. Sophomore forward and primary playmaker Dillon Jones averages just under four assists per game but finished with eight in the matchup.

"We had a lot of guys trying to find guys and making simple plays, and we're getting better in that aspect," said Duft following the win.

Throughout the season, Weber State has been known as a defensive-minded team — albeit, not a perfect one. Of the two building blocks for any basketball team — offense and defense — the Wildcats haven't always been great at either but have performed better on the defensive side of the ball.

For a Weber State team that's been somewhat inconsistent throughout the year, there was a lot of questions about how the team would come out two days later against, arguably, a tougher opponent in Sacramento State. The Hornets were coming off a surprising loss to Idaho State, while the Wildcats hoped to maintain the high of one of their biggest wins of the season.

While offense came relatively easy just a few days prior, it was at a premium for both teams in Saturday's matchup. After having scored 51 points in the first half on Thursday, Weber State came away with the gritty 50-48 win over Sacramento State. Jones played like a star, yet again, and his last-second layup to win it for the Wildcats came after the team had gone nearly six minutes without scoring a basket.

Duft said after the game that it was his "favorite win of the year" because of how the team found a way to win a game that neither team really looked like it should win. Weber State shot 33% from the field, which normally would indicate a terrible loss for most teams, but Sacramento State shot an even worse 29% from the field.

It was Weber State's lowest point total in a victory since January 1990 when the Wildcats defeated Western Michigan 47-46. As the team hits the bulk of the conference schedule and makes their way towards March, winning in two extremely contrasting ways was a positive sign to players and coaches.

"I'm encouraged, because in March you never know how it's going to go," Jones said after the Sacramento State game. "So the fact that we're finding a way to win games all kind of ways ... it's encouraging to me just knowing that in March I feel like we'll be battle tested."

With two big wins during the week and a 5-2 record in conference play, the Wildcats moved into sole possession of third place in the Big Sky Conference, behind Montana State and Eastern Washington. In the preseason coaches and media polls, Weber State was picked by both groups to finish fourth in the conference.

As first-year head coach Duft has progressed throughout the course of this season, he's learned more about his team and has a better understanding of what they're capable of this season. Last week was a prime example of seeing how the players compete in different circumstances and win games, which, ultimately, is all that matters come conference tournament time.

"I grew up a Roy Williams fan, a Kansas fan, and he would always say, his famous quote was always: We gotta be able to win games in the 50s and 60s (point totals), and we gotta be able to win games in the 80s and 90s," Duft said. "And so your team has got to beat multiple, you've got to be able to play all different types of tempo."

The Wildcats hit the road for the start of four straight road games, the biggest being a shot at undefeated Eastern Washington on Saturday. But Duft and his team should feel encouraged about their chances against anyone since they've proven they can win any way they need to. Now the challenge remains going out and doing it.

Dillon Jones named Big Sky Player of the Week

Jones brought home his third Player of the Week honors from the conference after he helped lead his team to two wins. In the matchup against Portland State, he came two assists shy of a triple-double — 17 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.

Against Sacramento State, he not only made the game-winning layup but also tallied 18 points, 14 rebounds and two assists. Jones now has 11 double-doubles on the season, which puts him at fifth in the nation in that category. He leads the country in defensive rebounding at 10.2 per game and is fifth in overall rebounding at 10.9 per game.


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