Weber State set to open Big Sky Tournament run against Sacramento State

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OGDEN — For a team flush with several new players to the program and one led by a first-year head coach, Weber State couldn't have expected a much better regular season finish than the one it got.

Despite a rocky start to the season, which culminated in a 5-8 nonconference record, head coach Eric Duft's team put together a strong conference resume and finished 12-6 in the Big Sky Conference, good for third place in the final regular season standings.

Two of its 12 wins came in hard-fought victories over the Sacramento State Hornets, a team that hasn't given the Wildcats many problems in the past but one that posed a significant challenge this season. The Hornets finished sixth in the regular season standings and will matchup with the Wildcats in the quarterfinal round on Monday at 8 p.m. MST.

In the two games between the Wildcats and Hornets this season, Weber State secured both wins, but neither game was ever easy. Duft's team came away with a grueling 50-48 win at home, thanks to a Dillon Jones last-second layup; and on the road in Sacramento a few weeks later, Weber State pulled out a 52-49 victory over the Hornets.

The 50 points the Wildcats scored in the home win was the lowest scored in a win since January 1990 when Weber State defeated Western Michigan 47-46. More often than not in college basketball, scoring 50 points, or 52 for that matter, in a game almost assures a loss. But thanks to the fact that Sacramento State shot the ball even worse than the Wildcats in both games, Duft's team came away with wins.

During the season, and especially in conference play, Weber State's defense was its calling card and consistently ranked near the top in many statistical categories. The Wildcats' offense ebbed and flowed, but it usually did just enough to be paired with its excellent defense to win games.

But in the two games played between the two teams, each team shot less than 40% from the field and the outcome wasn't decided until the final seconds.

The Wildcats have beaten teams by 20 points this year, and they've lost to teams by 30 points, but for whatever reason. When they've met the Hornets, it has been a slugfest for all 40 minutes, and Duft's team has done just enough to come out on top.

"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."

Weber State team has done just that this season and has a wide range of final point totals in their victories. The first win over Sacramento State was the lowest score of the season, while the Wildcats managed to score 90 points against Northern Arizona in an overtime victory in the regular season finale of the year.

Jones led the team in scoring in both matchups against Sacramento State this season and averaged 15.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in the two contests. Duft and the team will look for him to lead them again as they hope for a better offensive showing in the tournament matchup.

One of the biggest successes for the Wildcats this season has been their ability to adapt and survive. Aside from a stunning 34-point road loss to Northern Colorado, Weber State has been close in nearly every game or at least hasn't gotten completely blown out in the losses. And while many of their wins haven't come easily — with both games against Sacramento State serving as prime examples — this team has improved steadily over the season and is ready to take their talents into the conference tournament.

"I'm encouraged, because in March you never know how it's going to go," Jones said after the win over the Hornets in Ogden. "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."

March is here now and Monday's battle will show just how far the Wildcats have come this year and how far they may be able to go.

Two Wildcats earn All-Big Sky Conference honors

The Big Sky Conference revealed its All-Big Sky teams on Friday, and two Wildcats featured prominently in the mix of talented players the conference honored. Jones was a unanimous selection to the all-conference first team, while guard Steven Verplancken was named to the third team.

This is Jones' third year in a row receiving honors from the Big Sky in his third year with Weber State. He was named Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2021 and was named to the all-conference second team in 2022. This season, he helped lead the Wildcats to a third place finish in the rankings and led the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

Jones recorded 19 double-doubles which was the third most of any player in the country and he led the entire country in defensive rebounds per game with 10.2. The player who finished second in that category averaged two rebounds less than Jones per game. The 6-foot-6 forward also finished seventh in the country in total rebounds per game with 11.0.

Verplancken earned all-conference honors in his first season with Weber State, after transferring this past offseason from Southern Illinois. He was one of the Wildcats' go-to scorers and finished second on the team in scoring with 13.1 points per game.

The guard from Dominican Republic shot nearly 50% from the 3-point line during non-conference play and finished the regular season shooting 41.9% from deep. He tied Jones for the season high in points while setting his own career high with 26 points in the regular season finale against Northern Arizona.

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Thomas Gordon


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