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Weber State basketball: Wildcats drop decision to Xavier in NCAA tourney's opening round

ST. LOUIS — If only Weber State hadn't given up a game-changing 13-0 run to Xavier early in the first half.

If only the Wildcats hadn't lost one of their starters and key role players, Ryan Richardson, to a sprained ankle just four minutes into the game, an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the night.

If only WSU leading scorer Jeremy Senglin and his teammates hadn't had so much trouble trying to get decent looks at the basket against the Musketeers' tenacious defense during a low-scoring first half.

If only ... if only ... if only ...

Indeed, if only each of those things hadn't happened Friday night, the underdog Wildcats might well be playing in Sunday's second round of the NCAA tournament.

Instead, though, they all did happen and made a huge difference in the outcome as a spunky, 15th-seeded Weber State squad dropped a 71-53 decision to second-seeded Xavier in an East Region first-round matchup at the Scottrade Center.

The Big Sky Conference champion Wildcats, who had won 10 of their previous 11 games coming into the Big Dance, finish their season at 26-9.

And while Weber State won't be partying like it's 1999 — the last time a Wildcat team won an NCAA tourney game with a monumental upset victory over North Carolina — WSU head coach Randy Rahe was still mighty proud of his team.

"I can't be more proud of our team and for what they've accomplished this year and how they've represented themselves on and off the court," he said. "These guys — we've got really good players, but these guys and everybody on our team, they're much better people than they are players.

"And that's probably what I'm most proud of, the character they display and how they handle themselves and who they are.

"We battled, we battled, we fought," Rahe said. "That's what we've done all year. I felt like it got to the point where we're right there in the game, second half, it was a seven-point game. We got a couple of stops and then we had two or three shots, they were in and they came out. Had a couple of those gone down, I think we could have grabbed the momentum a little bit and really made it exciting coming down the stretch."

Joel Bolomboy, the lone senior on Weber State's squad, had 14 points and 10 rebounds in his final game in a Wildcat uniform. Freshman guard McKay Cannon contributed mightily with 10 points, five assists and four steals while Richaud Gittens added eight points off the bench.

"Looking back, it's been a great career," said Bolomboy, who this year became the Big Sky's all-time leading rebounder. "I've been on many great teams and I've just embraced all of it. I've enjoyed everything. To be able to be in this position, to be at the NCAA tournament twice out of my four years, that's really good."

Another freshman, Zach Braxton, scored seven points, as did Senglin, WSU's leading scorer this season with over 18 points per game. Senglin was just 3 of 11 from the field and 0 of 5 from 3-point range, and Bolomboy struggled through a 6-of-15 shooting night of his own against Xavier's physical and intense defensive pressure.

"I don't know if Senglin worked harder in his career to get seven points than he did tonight," said Xavier coach Chris Mack. "But you don't do that without great effort, and I'm really proud of this team."

"They weren't going to let Jeremy breathe," Rahe said. "I mean, they were everywhere he went. If his defender was a little late, they jumped somebody else out at him. They weren't going to let Jeremy beat them, and they did a great job on him.

"You've got to tip your hat to them, and we had a hard time getting Jeremy free."

For Xavier (28-5), senior big man James Farr had a game-high 18 points and pulled down 15 rebounds, while Jalen Reynolds, Remy Abell and Trevon Bluiett added 12, 11 and 10 points, respectively, for the Musketeers, who outrebounded the Wildcats by a wide 43-27 margin and held Weber State to a season-low 23 points in the first half.

"I didn't want to go home," Farr said. "We're glad to get this win, but we know we're nowhere near our goal."

Xavier advances to face Wisconsin, which survived with a shaky 47-43 victory over Pittsburgh, on Sunday.

Weber State missed its first three shots before Bolomboy got the Wildcats on the scoreboard when he drove the baseline for a rim-rocking dunk. The 'Cats trailed just 8-6 before Xavier's Farr and Kaiser Gates combined for all 13 points in a 13-0 run that pushed the Musketeers' lead to 21-6.

Gittens, Hill, Bolomboy, Braxton and Dusty Baker brought the Wildcats back, getting Weber within seven points at 27-20 before Xavier extended its lead back to 11 on a 3 by J.P. Macura just before the halftime horn blared.

Xavier extended its lead to 15, 42-27, early in the second half before Bolomboy, Cannon, Braxton, Senglin, Gittens and Kyndahl Hill joined forces to bring the 'Cats back within seven on three occasions, the last time at 56-49, before Xavier steadily pulled away down the stretch.

GAME NOTES: When Weber State's pep band was unable to attend Friday's game due to a scheduling conflict, WSU Athletic Director Jerry Bovee contacted Scott Barnes, his counterpart at the University of Pittsburgh and the former AD at Utah State, to see if Pitt's band could step in and help out. So, after Pitt's loss to Wisconsin, the Panthers' band played on, putting on black WSU golf shirts and some band members placing placards on their instruments that said "Go Wildcats!" as they played the Wildcat fight song along with other numbers while sitting adjacent to the WSU bench. ... Among the Wildcat fans in attendance at Friday's game were former Weber State star quarterback Jamie Martin, who lives in the St. Louis area, and former WSU basketball star Eddie Gill, who was a key member of the Wildcats' team that knocked off North Carolina in the first round of the 1999 NCAA tourney at Seattle.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com