Last March's Big Sky championship game against Montana was, for all intents and purposes, over. In the locker room at the break, coach Randy Rahe and his staff tried to define a new challenge in an effort to keep his team focused.
"[I told them] we have to stay aggressive. That was the No. 1 message," Rahe (pronounced Ray) said by phone last week. "Naturally, when you're up 20, you're worried as a coach that your guys will let up a little bit because everything's hunky-dory, so our message was that the score is 0-0 and you guys have to win the second half by two."
It didn't happen. The nothing-to-lose Grizzlies attacked relentlessly after the break, and almost 11 years after Harold "The Show" Arceneaux stamped Weber's name onto the national hoops consciousness with a 36-point tour de force in a first-round NCAA tournament upset of North Carolina, the Wildcats found themselves on the other end of an epic one-act show.
After shooting just 9-for-31 and totaling 37 points in his first five halves of basketball against Weber State on the season, Montana's leading scorer, Anthony Johnson, exploded for 34 second-half points (42 total), including 25 of Montana's final 27 down the stretch. His final jumper rattled home with 14 seconds left, pushing Montana for a second time to its largest lead of the game -- one point. Moments later, it was over.
Montana 66, Weber State 65.
Suddenly, inexplicably, painfully, Weber State was out of the NCAA tournament.
"He just started rolling. It was unbelievable," said Weber State guard Damian Lillard, whose turnover on Weber's final real possession helped seal the Wildcats' collapse. "That's the best way to describe it. It just seemed like he came and took the game away from us, singlehandledly."
As Montana whittled down the Wildcats' lead, Rahe tried multiple defenders on Johnson, tried doubling him, tried trapping him. Nothing worked. Shot after shot kept falling, from all angles, which made it all the more frustrating for Lillard and Co., who never backed down but never found a solution, either.
"All three guards that were on the court, we were all like 'Let me have him. I'll guard him. I'll take him,'" said Lillard, who escaped a rough upbringing in Oakland, Calif., to become the Big Sky Player of the Year last season as a sophomore. "I thought we did a pretty good job of guarding him. He just made tough shots and won the game for his team."
The postgame locker room scene was as you would imagine it. The Wildcats, with memories of their stunning tournament semifinal home loss to Montana State a year earlier still lingering, were in complete shock. Unlike his halftime speech, there was no way for Rahe to obfuscate the reality of this situation.
"Right after the game, there's really nothing to be said," Rahe said. "There's nothing you can say to make them feel better and make yourself feel better. I don't remember what we said in the locker room. I know we gave the kids two full days off after that to stay away."
Perhaps it's a bit of a coping mechanism after the pair of painful postseason losses, but Rahe correctly notes that his program, the two-time defending regular-season champs, should be defined more by its overall success than one-off failures. Following a hard-fought, first-round NIT loss at Cincinnati, Rahe signed a contract extension through 2017. Now, after a summer of reflection and roster turnover, the Wildcats are eager to make another run.
Despite losing three of the team's top four scorers, Weber still has Lillard, and Rahe feels good about the potential emergence of complementary pieces like Kyle Bullinger, who is moving to small forward, big man Trevor Morris and guard Lindsey Hughey. Newly signed juco 2-guard Scott Bamforth will provide quality outside shooting. Northern Colorado, Northern Arizona and, yes, Montana will have something to say about it, but Weber State should have every chance to be right back in the same position come March.
If Weber does break through and return to the NCAAs (the Wildcats last went in 2007), Rahe knows how much impact a win on that stage can have. One of the first things Rahe says he does when out on the recruiting trail is find out if a prospect has even heard of Weber State, which is tucked away in Ogden, Utah. More than a decade after Arceneaux's star turn, which headlined Weber's last NCAA tournament victory, his performance remains the hook for many outsiders to recall the program.
"The remarks we get from people a lot are 'Well, I just remember there was one kid who went nuts on North Carolina,' " Rahe said. "They don't remember the name, [but] they do remember 'The Show.'"
Weber State won't soon forget Anthony Johnson's show, but it's time to turn the page. After all, a chance for redemption is just five short months away.