RENO, Nev. -- Sacramento State sliced an 18-point deficit all the way down to one point on two occasions during the final five minutes, but couldn't quite get over the hump in a 71-67 loss to Portland State in the first round of the Big Sky Conference Men's Basketball Tournament at the Reno Events Center.
The Hornets, who trailed, 36-18, late in the first half, and 40-25 at halftime, put forth a spirited effort that saw Sacramento State outscore the Vikings, 42-31, after intermission. The big push came late in the second half when the Hornets went on a 13-1 run spanning 3:46 to get within, 54-52, with 7:55 remaining. Four different Hornets scored during the run, and was capped by a driving left-handed layup by Kevin Hicks.
Sacramento State would eventually slice the lead even further to 58-57 at the 5:01 mark, 60-59 at 3:56, and 69-67 with four seconds left, but could never take the lead. After a Bryce Fowler jumper got the Hornets within, 60-59, Portland State's Holland Woods buried a 3-pointer to put PSU back up by four (63-59) with 3:20 left. Woods scored the Vikings' final 11 points of the game, including two free throws at the 2:01 mark, a jumper with 1:09 left, and two more free throws at the 17 second and 3.9 second marks.
The final four of those free throws kept things at a two-possession game, giving PSU a 69-64 advantage with 17 seconds left, and a 71-67 lead with 3.9 seconds left. Hicks had just buried a 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds remaining to trim the Hornet deficit to 69-67 before Woods put things away at the free throw line.
With the loss, Sacramento State's season comes to an end while Portland State advances to the quarterfinal round where it will play Eastern Washington on Thursday at 8:05 p.m. The Hornets, who were the No. 11 seed, finish the season with a 7-25 overall record, the first time the team failed to reach double figures in wins since the 2010-11 season. Portland State, the No. 6 seed in the tournament, improved to 20-12 and avenged a pair of losses to Sacramento State during the regular season.
The injury-plagued Hornets, once again, played without guards Marcus Graves, Jiday Ugbaja and Jeff Wu. Guard Izayah Mauriohohoo-Le'afa was limited to just 11 minutes tonight because of injury, and Fowler played on a badly injured foot, but managed to play 34 minutes and have a big night.
"Portland State came our more aggressive and built a big lead," Sacramento State head coach Brian Katz said. "We certainly fought back and had our chances at the end, but I'm proud of our guys for never giving in. Bryce is playing on a broken foot, Izayah is playing with a back injury and we have three injured guards out for the year, but our guys always played hard and never gave in.
"I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a team in my life. I don't care what our record says, this team flat out was so resilient and so competitive, and refused to ever give in. We've lost a lot of close games this year, and this was another one, but we aren't going to make excuses."
Sacramento State dropped to 2-10 in games decided by six points or less, pointing to what could have been a much better season if not for the rash of injuries. In addition, the Hornets saw their second leading scorer, Joshua Patton, foul out with 12:08 remaining in tonight's contest.
After shooting just 6-for-23 from the field in the first half, the Hornets managed to finish the game shooting 39% (22-56) from the field, 38% (8-21) from the 3-point line and 79% (15-19) from the free throw line. Seven of those eight made 3s came in the second half. Portland State, which held a 40-33 advantage on the glass, shot 40% (22-55) from the field, 29% (5-17) from the 3-point line and 71% (22-31) from the charity stripe. Eleven of the Vikings' final 18 points came at the free throw line as they were already in the double bonus at the 5:29 mark of the second half.
Four Hornets scored in double figures, including Fowler who had 11 second-half points. The true freshman scored a season-best 16 points (6-9 FG, 4-5 3FG) to go along with six rebounds, five assists and a steal in 34 minutes. Jordan Tolbert had 14 points, five assists and four steals in 35 minutes, Hicks had 12 points, and Patton had 10 points (3-4 FG, 4-4 FT) before fouling out in just 16 minutes of action. Calvin Martin added five points, seven rebounds and a pair of steals. Senior Justin Strings failed to score in double figures for just the second time this year, finishing with seven points and eight rebounds while playing all 40 minutes. Strings, a team co-captain, had some emotional words in the postgame press conference.
"This was a tough year, but with all the injuries and adversity aside, I wouldn't trade my teammates for anything," Strings said. "The guys in that locker room fought so hard every day, and I was proud to lead them into battle. We had so many guys go down (with injury) and play injured, but we still came out every night and gave everything we had. It hurts to lose, but I can't tell you how proud I am to have played with this group of guys."
For Portland State, Woods scored a game-high 18 points (12 in the second half) as he went 9-for-10 from the free throw line while adding six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Bryce Canda had 16 points and nine rebounds, and Deante Strickland added 13 points. No other Viking scored more than six points.
NOTES -- Sacramento State had won its Big Sky Tournament opener three consecutive years prior to tonight's loss…this year marks the Big Sky Tournament's final year in Reno, as the event will move to Boise next year…Strings finished his illustrious career with 1,570 points. In 70 years of basketball at Sacramento State, only one player (Robert Martin 1,774 points) scored more points than Strings…tonight also marked the final game for fourth-year senior James Herrick.
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