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OGDEN — Weber State players Zach Braxton and Jerrick Harding had career nights Saturday as the Wildcats pulled away in the second half for a 92-76 win over Southern Utah.
Braxton posted a double-double and tied career highs in points and rebounds, 22 and 13. Richardson, a sophomore from Wichita, Kansas, tied his career high with 31 points as the Wildcats improved to 2-1 in Big Sky Conference play.
“I thought the guys had a great competitive edge tonight,” Weber State coach Randy Rahe said. “Southern Utah is at or near the top of every offensive category in our conference. They are really talented, and we held them to 37 percent shooting while dishing out 18 assists and shooting 56 percent for the game.”
Southern Utah tied the game 5-5 with leading scorer Dwayne Morgan knocking down a 3-pointer and muscling up a shot in the paint. Morgan picked up a quick second foul and Thunderbirds coach Todd Simon was forced to go to the bench early.
Weber State took advantage as Harding scored, then found Wildcat big man Braxton for a dunk. Braxton notched a running hook and Ryan Richardson hit his first triple of the night to complete a 9-0 run that stretched the lead to 14-9.
“It was a game of runs,” Harding said. “Tonight I feel like we had a lot of energy and we knew shots were eventually going to fall.”
Senior Dusty Baker entered the game in the middle of the first half and promptly made his presence felt. Baker dished an assist to Braxton for a dunk, hit a three and facilitated Rahe’s offense to perfection. By halftime, Baker had knocked down two 3-pointers and found open teammates with seven assists.
“Baker might not be the fastest mover, but he has a high skill level and sees everyone on the court,” Rahe said.
Late in the half, Richardson found his rhythm, knocking down a 25-footer and leading Weber State into the locker room with 13 points on 4-5 shooting from behind the arc as the Wildcats led 43-32 at intermission.
Braxton, who electrified the Dee Events Center Crowd with a 12-point, four-rebound and three-dunk first half, got to work early in the second. After a pair of made free-throws, another two-hand dunk and a highlight reel baseline reverse from Harding, the Wildcats led 49-39.
Braxton, a 63 percent free-throw shooter, drained 10-11 from the line and converted four Baker assists into buckets.
“That’s just what me and Dusty do,” Braxton said. “I gotta give all the credit to my teammates. You don’t get dunks unless they are throwing it to you off the pick-and-roll.”
Southern Utah battled back from a 10-point second-half deficit as forward Jamal Aytes and guard Brandon Better helped close the gap to 57-54.
Just as the Thunderbirds got close, Weber State sprinted back to a double-digit lead as freshman Ricky Nelson scored eight of the Wildcats' next 11 points.
“We hit a little bit of a wobble and we needed a spark,” Rahe said. “Ricky can shoot the ball, and he’s confident and plays with a little swagger.”
Harding, the Big Sky’s leading scorer, showed a spectacular range of second-half offense. The sophomore hit a pull-up 15-footer, drained a deep 2-pointer, dropped a 10-foot floater off dribble penetration, knocked down a 3-pointer and made 5-7 free throws.
“I feel like we got our competitiveness back,” Harding said. “I feel like we need to bring it even more when we go on the road. I feel like we’re ready.”
Better led the Thunderbirds with 25 points while Aytes converted 7-8 shots and finished with 18 points. Southern Utah drops to 6-9, 0-4.
For Weber State, a six-game homestand came to an end Saturday. The Wildcats play at Northern Colorado and North Dakota this week, and Rahe said he’s excited to get out on the road and see what his team is made of.