OGDEN — As Weber State's 82-60 win over Sacramento State in the Big Sky semifinals was winding down on Tuesday night, fans at the Dee Events Center started chanting "16 straight, 16 straight."
Yes, the Wildcats have won 16 straight games. But to get to the NCAA Tournament, all that matters is win No. 17. And the Wildcats will try for that tonight against Eastern Washington in the Big Sky championship game. Eastern Washington beat Idaho State 76-67 in the other semifinal and most observers of the Big Sky expected the championship game to feature the Wildcats and Eagles.
"That's what it's supposed to be — the top two teams in the conference," Wildcats guard Jermaine Boyette said. "It's an ESPN game. You've got two powerhouses going at it."
Both teams had their ups and downs on Tuesday night.
For Weber State, the 10-day layoff since their last game seemed to bother the Wildcats early on, especially on offense. Weber State's offense had no flow and the Wildcats trailed Sacramento State 18-12 with 8:47 left in the first half.
"I think we had a little bit of rust," Weber State forward Nic Sparrow said. "We made some careless turnovers early on that we don't usually make."
Slobodan Ocokoljic carried the Wildcats offensively while the rest of the team struggled. He scored 15 of his game-high 23 points in the first half. He also hit a 3-pointer at the end of the first half to give the Wildcats a 34-27 lead.
"That set the momentum for the second half," Hornets guard Rashaad Hooks said.
And it seemed to break Sacramento State's spirit. Weber State didn't waste much time putting the Hornets away in the second half. An early 15-4 run gave the Wildcats a 53-35 lead. The closest Sacramento State got after that was 60-47, but Weber State then scored seven straight points to take a 67-47 lead.
Weber State coach Joe Cravens said his team's experience got it through the tough first half.
"It's huge," Cravens said of his team that has six seniors and four juniors on the roster. "It has everything to do with our success this season."
Defense was also key for the Wildcats while their offense was struggling. Weber State held Sacramento State to 35 percent shooting from the field in the first half and the Hornets were 0-of-11 from the 3-point line in the second half.
"Weber State was the better team," Sacramento State coach Jerome Jenkins said. "We just couldn't score any points on them."
The Wildcats hope to put on the same type of defensive performance tonight against Eastern Washington. But it won't be easy. The Eagles are plenty motivated after losing the last two Big Sky championship games and after getting swept by Weber State during the regular season. Prior to Weber State and Sacramento State's semifinal game, a reporter asked Eastern Washington's Brendon Merritt and Chris Hester which team they would like to play for the championship. Neither player hid who they wanted.
"We want Weber," Merritt said.
Hester then borrowed a line from a famous athlete and said, "To be the best you've got to beat the best. Right now we're looking for Weber State."
Cravens knows that tonight will be a big challenge.
"We're playing a team that was picked to win the league and has three players on the all-conference team," Cravens said. "That's a lot to contend with."
Against Idaho State, the Eagles didn't show the same rust that the Wildcats had. Eastern Washington raced to a 29-12 lead. But Idaho State came back and took a six-point lead in the second half. Alvin Snow took over late in the game and scored 10 points during a 12-2 Eastern Washington run that gave the Eagles a 72-62 lead.
Weber State (25-5, 14-0)
F Nic Sparrow 6-4 Jr. 10.0
F S. Ocokoljic 6-8 Jr. 15.0
F S. Bachmann 6-10 Sr. 7.3
G J. Boyette 6-2 Sr. 20.1
G John Hamilton 6-3 Jr. 11.4
Eastern Washington (18-11, 10-4)
F Chris Hester 6-3 Sr. 13.8
F Mark Axton 6-7 So. 9.8
C T.J. Williams 6-8 Sr. 6.3
G Brendon Merritt 6-4 Jr. 11.2
G Alvin Snow 6-2 Jr. 13.5
Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Dee Events Center (12,000)
Radio: 1430 AM