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Weber State basketball: Wildcats set to open Big Sky tourney title quest

Joel Bolomboy and the Weber State Wildcats will face Portland State in the WAC tournament quarterfinals on Thursday.
Joel Bolomboy and the Weber State Wildcats will face Portland State in the WAC tournament quarterfinals on Thursday.
Robert Casey,

Weber State has already proven it's the best men's basketball team in the Big Sky Conference this season.

But now, WSU will have to do it all over again starting Thursday when the top-seeded Wildcats open play in the Big Sky's annual postseason tournament, which is being played for the first time ever at a neutral site — Reno, Nevada.

Weber State enters the conference tournament 23-8 overall and won this year's Big Sky regular-season title with a 15-3 record, which includes a pair of victories over Thursday's quarterfinal opponent, eighth-seeded Portland State (13-17).

But that regular-season sweep offers WSU coach Randy Rahe little comfort as he prepares his team for Thursday's tipoff (1 p.m. MST) at the Reno Events Center.

"They're playing really good right now," Rahe said of the Vikings, who scored a 74-67 victory over Northern Colorado in Tuesday's opening round of the tournament. "They've won four in a row, and they've got maybe the best big guy in the league (6-foot-8 Cameron Forte, a transfer from Georgia). This kid is a load and he's really good. He's had triple-doubles and he's averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds over his last four games.

"They're really athletic on the perimeter, they're aggressive, quick and athletic, and they really drive the ball. They're very good in transition and they run like crazy. They're just a very fast, aggressive, athletic team with a really good big guy.

"It'll come down to how well we defend 'em," Rahe said. "That's where our bread is buttered."

In their two regular-season matchups, the Wildcats won 73-58 in mid-January at Portland, then won again 87-78 in a mid-February rematch at Ogden.

In those two games, WSU junior guard Jeremy Senglin averaged 22.5 points and senior power forward Joel Bolomboy, who was named the Big Sky's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week, averaged 20.5 points and 12.5 rebounds. For the season, Bolomboy and Senglin have averaged 17.9 and 17.8 points per game, respectively.

"In the game at our place late in the season, we pulled it out at the end," Rahe said. "It went right down to the wire, and we made a couple of plays to pull it out right at the end."

Forte was the league's fourth-leading scorer at 19 points per game this season and was second in the Big Sky in rebounding behind Bolomboy — who ranks third in the nation with 12.8 boards per game — with 9.4 per game.

In past years, winning the regular-season title would assure the Wildcats of hosting the Big Sky tourney.

But not anymore.

"Right now, I wish it was the old way, that's for sure," the Wildcats' coach said with a laugh. "But if we had not won it, I'd be glad we were coming to Reno.

"When you get on a neutral court and everything's even, there's not a lot of advantage for anybody. Portland State has already played a game here and got all the nerves out; they're loose and confident and have nothing to lose, so we've got to fight through that and win any way we can.

"After winning that first one, they're just confident as heck right now," he said. "They've got all the jitters out, so we've got to get our guys in a rhythm early, and it'll be a heck of a challenge for us.

"But winning the tournament would be a nice reward for having a really nice regular season," added Rahe, who needs just one more win to pass Neil McCarthy as the all-time leader in coaching victories at Weber State.

In today's other Big Sky men's quarterfinal action, fourth-seeded Idaho State faces fifth-seeded North Dakota at 3:30 p.m. MDT, followed by No. 2 seed Montana vs. No. 10 Sacramento State at 5:30 and No. 3 Idaho vs. No. 6 Eastern Washington at 8 p.m.

The semifinals will be played Friday night, with the championship game Saturday at 6:45 p.m. on ESPNU.