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Questions hang over Weber State women’s basketball as WSU eliminated in Big Sky 1st round

Weber State forward Jadyn Matthews (5) is double-teamed by Northern Colorado players during a Big Sky tournament first-round game Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Boise, Idaho.

The positive vibes that prevailed for Weber State women’s basketball following the 2021-22 season slowly disintegrated this year as the Wildcats scuffled into old ways, leaving questions for the future of the program after No. 10 WSU ended its season Saturday afternoon in a 63-52 loss to No. 9 Northern Colorado in the first round of the Big Sky tournament in Boise, Idaho.

The Wildcats failed to convert two big advantages in the first half Saturday, forcing Northern Colorado into twice as many turnovers (14-7) and pulling down six offensive rebounds for a 6-0 advantage in second-chance points. That was undone by a 0-of-10 field-goal mark in the second quarter, which helped the Bears take a 31-20 lead into halftime. WSU shot 5 of 28 in the first half.

Weber State burst out of the locker room with three straight buckets from forward Jadyn Matthews to end the drought. But Northern Colorado scored on three possessions as well, and a Gabi Fields 3-pointer increased the Bears’ lead to 12 early in the third quarter. Despite doubling its field-goal output, Weber State found itself with a larger deficit to end the third after Northern Colorado shot 6 of 8 and Delaynie Byrne scored 10 points.

The Wildcats again launched into a new quarter, totaling a 9-0 run helped by a Laura Taylor 3 that crawled over the front of the rim and capped on an Ava Williams bucket to make it a 50-46 game with 6 minutes left.

But Hannah Simental, who scored 13 points in the first quarter for the Bears, delivered two big jump shots to push back the run, then dished to a cutting Byrne for an and-one layup to make the score 57-48 with 2:18 remaining.

“How about taking a punch and stay standing? That’s the big piece that we have to get to,” WSU head coach Velaida Harris said. “We take the hit and we’re down six, we stay fighting instead of falling and going down 10, 12, 14. That’s what we have to learn from this experience.”

Byrne finished with a career-high 29 points for NoCo. Simental scored 19.

Daryn Hickok led Weber State with 15 points by going 13 of 16 at the free-throw line. She also kept her team in the game with 10 rebounds, seven of which were on the offensive end.

Matthews finished with 14 points. Taylor added 11 points, shooting 3 of 7 from the 3-point line. Matthews and Taylor combined to shoot 11 of 23; the rest of the team was 5 of 31.

Weber State finishes with a 6-25 overall record and was 2-16 in the Big Sky regular season.

In the 2020-21 season, WSU lost by 16.5 points per conference loss. That improved to 7.9 points per loss in 2021-22, a season in which Weber State went 6-14 in Big Sky play with five losses of four points or less and two more losses in overtime.

A 10-point, first-round tournament win over Sacramento State followed, Weber’s first Big Sky tournament win in five years. And the Wildcats were set to return post players Daryn Hickok, Jadyn Matthews and Emma Torbert for the third consecutive season, along with senior shooter Laura Taylor.

All that combined into a three-year contract extension for Harris moving into her fifth season at the head of the program.

But that upward trajectory stalled this season. A year after going 6-14 in Big Sky play with losses by an average of 7.9 points, WSU went 2-16 with losses coming by an average of 16 points apiece.

That puts into play a stipulation in Harris’ new contract that allows for the possibility of an early dismissal.

The contract finalized in April 2022 lists the following among items that allow for termination for cause (meaning without a buyout owed): “in the event that the Women’s Basketball team fails to win at least 50% of its regular season conference games during either the first or second year of this contract.”

The decision for early termination based on one of the listed contractual causes is decided by the school president in consultation with the athletic director, the contract says.

In five seasons under Harris’ charge, the Wildcats have been known for positive efforts in the community. But on the court, Weber State has gone 29-116 (.200) overall and 15-81 (.156) in regular-season Big Sky games.

Weber State’s four nonconference wins this season came against teams (Utah Valley, Seattle, Hartford, Bryant) that finished the regular season a combined 22-92.

WSU took a four-game losing streak into conference play that grew to 12 games before claiming a 68-65 home win over Eastern Washington on Jan. 28. When Weber returned the trip to EWU, it lost 64-31 and scored the second-fewest single-game points in program history.

Harris is the program’s sixth Division I head coach dating back to 1974. Three of the first four coaches posted career records better than .500 in conference play. After Carla Taylor’s 23-year run (180-170, .514 in Big Sky games) ended in 2011, Bethann Ord coached WSU to a 40-90 (.308) mark in seven Big Sky campaigns from 2012-18.

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