Remember This In March: Weber State and Damian Lillard

Posted by rtmsf on January 17th, 2012

Kraig Williams is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last weekend’s Weber State vs. Montana game.

It was a scene that Damian Lillard had seen before. His Weber State squad was up big on conference rival Montana at home in the Dee Events Center at halftime, victory almost certainly in sight. The last time this played out was nearly two years ago, and the ending was one of the most memorable performances in recent college basketball history. Montana’s Anthony Johnson came out of the locker room and went bananas, scoring 34 points in the second half, including the Grizzlies’ final 21 to carry Montana to the Big Dance and send Weber home for the summer.

Lillard Is the Nation's Leading Scorer

Flash forward to present day. There would be no epic comeback. Weber State, aside from a five-minute drought in the second half that allowed Montana to cut the lead down to eight, cruised to a relatively easy 80-64 victory to take control of the Big Sky standings after playing a third of the conference schedule. While Montana threatened a comeback in the second half it was never meant to be, partly because Lillard was not willing to live that nightmare for a second time. “At halftime that was the main thing I was harping on,” Lillard said after the game in reference to the last time he saw Montana. “We had been in this position at home at halftime up on a good team. I just let the guys know we have to step on them. Last time we let that happen we ended up losing the Big Sky championship.”

“He (Lillard) doesn’t need a lot to motivate him,” added Weber State head coach Randy Rahe. “He’s motivated to win everything, but if he said that I don’t doubt it one bit.” Never needing motivation is one of the many things that make Lillard one of the best players in the nation that many have never heard of. The junior guard missed almost all of last season with a foot injury, but has come back better than ever this year to lead the nation in scoring at 25.5 points a game. Against Montana Lillard showed exactly why he is dangerous, showing off first-step quickness that is nearly impossible to stop. Even on a rough shooting night (4-15 after starting 3-5) and a defense specifically designed to stop him, Lillard almost hit his average with 21 points thanks to an 11-12 night from the free throw line. “He gets to the free throw line because people can’t stay in front of him. He just gets to the rim and is hard to guard,” teammate Scott Bamforth noted.

Regular season conference games in leagues like the Big Sky generally skirt past the national consciousness. The conference gets its one shot in the spotlight in March when the bright lights of ESPN come to town and a conference tournament title and a bid to go dancing are on the line. There was no title on the line on Saturday night, but the game still had a big-time atmosphere. In the Big Sky only the top six teams get to play in the conference tournament. The top two seeds get first round byes and the conference champion gets to host the semifinals and championship, making every game a bit more important. With Montana and Weber State appearing to be head and shoulders above the rest of the conference this season, their matchups are heavyweight bouts that could determine the all-important home court advantage of the conference tournament. ”They (Montana) were jacked up and we were jacked up and the crowd was really into it,” Lillard said.

“Around the Big Sky everyone wanted to see this game… This is one of possibly three matchups. We’re going to see them later and possibly see them in the championship,” said Grizzly guard Will Cherry. With strong outside shooting (Lillard, Bamforth and Jordan Richardson all shoot over 40% from deep), big guys that can bang in the paint, a deep bench that has been baptized by fire thanks to injuries and most importantly, a potential NBA point guard with Lillard running the show this season, the Wildcats have all the makings of a small school that can surprise in March. Just as long as they can get by Montana to get there.

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