Holton Hunsaker had a good look. Check that, a “great look,” according to head coach Dick Hunsaker.
Down by three with nine seconds left, the sophomore guard took a pass from the double-teamed Isiah Williams. He faked a shot, got his defender to jump 30 inches off the ground, stepped in and hoisted the best look from outside he had gotten all night.
It fell short, clanging off the rim and allowing the Weber State crowd to breathe a sigh of relief. After all, how embarrassing would it have been had the Wildcats, undefeated at home to that point, lost to Utah Valley in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament?
Meanwhile, the Wolverines were forced to experience the end of their season for a second time. The first was after the Great Conference Tournament, the second year in a row they lost in their first game despite being heavily favored. The players, coaching staff and even athletic director Mike Jacobsen thought the 20-12 Wolverines were finished, their chances for any national postseason berth blown by another poor conference showing.
Instead they were given new life. Another game. A bigger stage. Then they went out and led for much of the game at Weber State. Williams outperformed likely top-10 draft pick Damian Lillard, scoring 26 points on a stellar 11-of-20 shooting.
I asked Williams, a senior, if it was better ending his college career this way, with a defining performance against a legit opponent in a semi-recognizable tournament. His response?
“It feels the same,” Williams said. “A loss is a loss, and the season is over.”
Normally I don’t disagree with players or coaches. They’re the ones on the floor. They’re the ones putting in the work and effort, even as non-athletes on the press row judge their offering.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice the victories UVU did score that night. When the Wolverines jumped out to a 7-0 lead, the Wildcat fans were annoyed.
“Come on guys, it’s UVU,” they seemed to say. “We shouldn’t even be here. We should be in the NIT. We’re 24-6 and we’ve got Damian Lillard!”
By halftime the crowd had shifted from annoyed to frustrated. The Wildcats had ripped off an 11-0 run and taken a nine-point lead. They seemed on the verge of fulfilling nearly every pundit’s expectations for the game – namely, a Weber State blowout. Instead UVU fought back, tied the game at the half.
UVU’s victory came in the final minute. With the game tied, Lillard dribbled downcourt and pulled up for a 3-point dagger from the right wing. Bam. A three-point Wildcat lead, coupled with a statement by the best player on the floor.
Except Williams wasn’t done, either. He responded as he would have at Marquette Park in Chicago: you sink a three on me, I’m getting you back next trip down the court. And he did, splashing from the left angle with Lillard draped all over him. Tie game.
At that point, the crowd’s frustration was gone. It was no longer Weber State vs. UVU. It was a game between two teams matching bucket for bucket.
The crowning moment came when Hunsaker rose up for the potential game-tying three from straight away. Everyone – and I mean everyone – thought that ball was going in. It was a good look and really, that’s all UVU needed in the first place.
Better than that may not be far away