Big first half propels Weber State to quarterfinals victory over Sacramento State

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OGDEN — With a week off to prepare, Weber State looked like a well-rested team for most of its game against Sacramento State on Monday and went on to defeat the Hornets 70-64 in the quarterfinals round of the Big Sky Tournament held in Boise, Idaho.

Weber State controlled from the opening tipoff and never trailed in the game, despite Sacramento State getting close near the end of regulation. The Wildcats scored 7 straight points to take the early lead over the Hornets, which forced a quick timeout in an effort to slow down the hot start.

Five different Wildcats players scored the team's first 14 points in a balanced attack and continued to push its lead through the first half of play. KJ Cunningham led the charge and scored 11 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting from the field in the first half.

Weber State succeeded at breaking down a less-than-stellar Sacramento State defense and got penetration from its guards and wings, which led to a large number of points in the paint. By the time the teams reached halftime, Weber State controlled a 41-25 lead and had 24 points in the paint, and only 6 points came from Alex Tew and Handje Tamba.

The first-half scoring nearly matched Weber State's previous matchups against Sacramento — a 50-48 win in Ogden and a 52-49 win in Sacramento — the Wildcats' defense helped secure the big lead. Sacramento State shot the ball relatively well in the first half, but an energetic Weber State defense forced 10 turnovers and only allowed one offensive rebound to the visitors in the first half.

"We knew we had to score tonight," Weber State head coach Eric Duft said. "We weren't gonna be able to probably hold them under 50 for the third straight time. And so we worked, we put some new stuff in offensively."

With a big lead and a well-played first half in the books, Weber State just needed to keep the momentum going to secure a quarterfinal win and advance to the next round. The second half, however, was anything but easy for the Wildcats.

Weber State guard Steven Verplancken came alive in the opening minutes of the second half and scored the team's first 6 points. But when the game hit the first media timeout, the Wildcats' offense went cold and went on a five-minute scoring drought. Sacramento State only managed 4 points during that stretch, which kept Weber State's lead alive.

As the game progressed, Weber State reverted back to its slow-paced offense, which allowed Sacramento State to cut into the deficit. Wildcats players held onto the ball longer and used most of the shot clock before finally getting a shot up. To make matters worse, Weber State failed to get an offensive rebound.

Weber State was led by forward Dillon Jones, who had an "off night" as he finished with a game-high 18 points, five rebounds and four assists, and shot 7-of-19 from the field and just 1-of-7 from 3-point range. He was supported by Cunningham and Verplancken, though, who each contributed 16 points apiece.

The Hornets did secure a small victory, though, and that was outrebounding the Wildcats 28-18, which included four offensive rebounds. But what the designated home team lost in the rebounding battle, it supplemented by winning the turnover margin 15-6, its lowest turnover total in a game all season.

With the first tournament game out of the way and the win secured, Weber State has less than 24 hours before it takes on No. 2 seed Montana State in a semifinals rematch on Tuesday night. The Bobcats, as the No. 1 seed in 2022, knocked out the Wildcats in the semifinals round of the Big Sky Tournament last season.


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Thomas Gordon


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