SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In the biggest game at The Nest in many years, the Sacramento State men's basketball team came through when it mattered most, crushing Montana State, 84-59, and in the process, advancing to the Big Sky Tournament for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
Entering the day, the Hornets needed to beat Montana State, and see Eastern Washington lose at home to Weber State to qualify for the Big Sky's seven-team postseason tournament. Part one of that scenario went Sacramento State's way when the Wildcats hung on to win at Eastern Washington, 82-78, this afternoon.
That set up part two of the scenario - the Hornets win, and they are in. Lose, and they don't qualify. And Sacramento State came through in a major way, thoroughly dominating Montana State in every facet of the game, holding big advantages over the Bobcats in points off turnovers (25-4), second-chance points (14-7) and fast break points (10-2). In fact, the Hornets led by at least 17 points the final 22:03 of the contest, and set season highs in field goals made (35) and steals (11), and the 84 points were the team's third highest total.
Now, Sacramento State, which improved to 14-15 overall and 10-10 in league, will turn its attention to the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in eight years. The top seven teams in the 11-member league qualify for the postseason event, and this year's tournament will be played at Weber State's home floor, the Dee Events Center, in Ogden, Utah.
The seeds for the tournament go as follows: No. 1 Weber State, No. 2 North Dakota, No. 3 Northern Arizona, No. 4 Montana, No. 5 Portland State, No. 6 Northern Colorado and No. 7 Sacramento State. Weber State receives a first-round bye in the single-elimination tournament, while the other six seeds will play each other in the quarterfinals. The Hornets will play No. 2 seed North Dakota (15-15, 12-8) on Thursday at 1:05 p.m. pacific time. If Sacramento State wins, they will play tournament host Weber State in the semifinals on Friday at 6 p.m. pacific time.
"We were a little rattled in Thursday's loss (to Montana), and our guys were disappointed in themselves for letting the nerves get to them," Sacramento State head coach Brian Katz said. "Defensively, we were very good tonight and we hit the boards hard. Offensively, we struggled a little bit early, but got ourselves going and the ball started moving around nicely.
"This year, the Big Sky has proven that anybody can beat any anybody, and all seven teams in the tournament feel that way. Its wide open."
Wide open is right. Sacramento State has defeated every team in the league at least once except Montana (0-2). That includes the 78-75 overtime victory in which Dylan Garrity hit a 75-foot shot at the buzzer to beat Weber State. In fact, it was that victory that allowed the Hornets to get the tiebreaker over Eastern Washington, which also finished the year 10-10 in league. The Eagles went 0-2 against Weber State while the Hornets went 1-1 against the Wildcats, giving Sacramento State the very important tiebreaker.
Since joining the Big Sky in 1996-97, the Hornets have made just four Big Sky Tournament appearances, and all four came in consecutive years, the 2002-03 season through the 2005-06 season. Sacramento State advanced to the semifinals twice (in 2003 and 2006), but have gotten no further.
"A lot of people have doubted us, but one of our team goals was to keep getting better, and that's exactly what we did collectively as a group," junior shooting guard Mikh McKinney said. "We are confident right now, and we feel like we can beat any team in the Big Sky Tournament. In fact, we have wins against five of the teams that qualified. We are excited and ready to go."
In tonight's game, the Hornets shot .493 (35-71) from the field, .381 (8-21) from the 3-point line, and outrebounded the Bobcats, 41-30. The Hornets outscored Montana State, 38-21, in the first half and 46-38 in the second half.
All 14 players on the Sacramento State roster appeared in the game, and the Hornets got double-figure scoring efforts from five of those players. That included McKinney (game-high 19 points to go along with six rebounds, four assists and two steals), Cody Demps (career-high 17 points to go along with four rebounds and four assists), Eric Stuteville (12 points on 6-of-9 shooting), Garrity (12 points, four 3-pointers) and true freshman Nick Hornsby (10 points).
Hornsby was all over the floor as his 10 points accompanied eight rebounds, and career highs in both assists (6) and steals (4) in just 22 minutes of play. The three seniors, Salley, Kendell Groom and Joey Quigley, who were honored for their contributions to the program prior to the game, all played well. Salley had six points and 10 rebounds (including five on the offensive glass), Quigley had four points and a dunk, and Groom had a two-handed rip on a fast break with just under two minutes to play.
"We are a family, and this is a group of guys that deserve this opportunity (to play in the Big Sky Tournament)," Salley said. "We work hard every day and grind while doing the little things it takes to win. I love this program, these guys are my brothers, and we can't wait to play again next week."
NOTES -- The Hornets' 10 conference wins are the most since joining the Big Sky in 1996-97…the team has improved its conference record every year of Katz's six-year tenure…the Hornets finish with a conference record of .500 or better for just third time since joining the Big Sky…the Hornets went 11-3 at home this year, the most home wins in the program's Div. I era (1991-pres.), and most since the 1988-89 squad posted 11 home victories.