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In the four seasons since he left Weber State, Damian Lillard has become one of the NBA's most dynamic players.
Everything the Wildcats have done without him is just as impressive, in their own way especially considering that during his brilliant career in Ogden, Lillard never quite got his team into the NCAA Tournament.
Weber State is in the NCAA field for the second time in three seasons, having won the Big Sky Conference tournament in Reno, Nev. The Wildcats earned the bid with three victories in games that went down to the last minute of regulation or beyond.
In the quarterfinals, the Wildcats trailed Portland State by one point going into the final minute of a 78-74 win. They needed Jeremy Senglin's 3-pointer with 12 seconds left in regulation to force overtime in an 83-78 semifinal defeat of North Dakota. And in the championship game, after Montana cut the lead to one point with 2:33 remaining, WSU held the Grizzlies scoreless the rest of the way in a 62-59 victory.
So the No. 15-seeded Wildcats are headed to St. Louis to meet No. 2 Xavier on Friday in the NCAA Tournament, adding to a history-making year for the program. In his 10th season, WSU coach Randy Rahe recently collected his 200th victory overall and became the all-time Big Sky leader in conference wins. The Wildcats posted their 1,000th win in the program's 54th year of Division I competition.
Lillard remains a big advocate of Weber State and completed his degree from the school last spring. As for his professional career, he's the NBA's No. 5 scorer with a 25.8 average and has posted two 50-point games since the All-Star break. He's largely responsible for keeping Portland in playoff position in the Western Conference.
Lillard was the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA draft as a junior, having missed most of the 2010-11 season with a foot injury. In his three full seasons, the Wildcats missed opportunities to advance to the NCAA Tournament, losing twice in Ogden in the Big Sky tournament and then falling at Montana in the 2012 title game. WSU lost a five-point halftime lead in Lillard's final game, even though he posted 29 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Rahe has rebuilt the program around Senglin and post player Joel Bolomboy, a finalist along with Utah's Jakob Poeltl for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center Award. Bolomboy was held to four points against Montana, but the Wildcats persevered, as they did throughout the tournament in Reno.
They've played admirably in honor of women's golf coach Jeff Smith, who died last month. Nobody loved Weber State athletics more than "Smitty," whose nickname appears on the Wildcats' jerseys.