The Nest is Sacramento State’s refuge in road-grinding Big Sky

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 - 12:00 am

If anyone was looking for a reason the Sacramento State men shot 69 percent and made 8 of 10 three-pointers while scoring a season-high 52 first-half points en route to an 84-78 win Thursday against visiting Idaho State, junior guard Dylan Garrity had the easy answer.

“Playing at home does wonders,” Garrity said after scoring a career-high 23 points and adding four assists. “You’ve got the crowd behind you, all your friends and family are at the game. The rim looks bigger. Everything you throw up feels like it’s going to go in.”

Sac State plays in the expansive Big Sky Conference, an 11-team league with schools from nine states and some of the most demanding travel itineraries in the nation.

Thursday’s game was just the Hornets’ third at home of their last nine, and in January they traveled to Montana State, Montana, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, North Dakota and Northern Colorado.

In conference games, the Hornets are 2-1 at home, but just 1-5 on the road. Similarly, Idaho State is 0-4 on the road and 4-1 at home.

“That’s the Big Sky,” said Sac State junior guard Mikh McKinney, who scored a season-high 28 points and added five assists. “It’s just tough to win on the road. There’s a lot of jet lag, a lot of waiting in airports during trips. It takes a lot out of you.”

Sacramento State is the only California school in the conference and, other than Portland State, the only one that plays in a large, diverse metropolitan area.

Not that it’s any easier on the Hornets’ conference rivals.

Big Sky teams are 12-38 in conference games on the road, including Northern Colorado’s 80-57 loss Thursday at Portland State that knocked the Bears out of a first-place tie with Weber State, the Hornets’ opponent tonight at The Nest.

“Here’s what I told the guys – it’s an absolute fact – the first 40 percent of the season we had the worst schedule of anyone in the country,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “Nobody had six of eight on the road. The last 60 percent of the season, we have the best schedule. We still have seven of 11 at home.”

Since Katz took over six years ago, the Hornets have made a dramatic improvement on their home court. They are 5-2 overall at home this season and 15-6 dating back to last season.

But the Hornets lost to Portland State 68-64 in their Big Sky home opener Jan. 16. They missed all 14 3-point attempts, snapping a streak of 561 consecutive games with at least one made 3-pointer.

That loss makes tonight’s game against Weber State (11-6, 8-1) more important for Sac State (7-11, 3-6).

If there is a New York Yankees of Big Sky men’s basketball, it’s Weber State. The Wildcats have won 20 regular-season and eight conference tournament championship titles and appeared in the NCAA Tournament 14 times. They lead the Big Sky in attendance, averaging 6,700 at the Dee Events Center.

“Their school made a commitment to basketball way back in the late 1960s, early 1970s,” Katz said. “They built a 12,000-seat arena in 1975 that still looks brand new. They play in a small town, Ogden (Utah). They have a great tradition of performance and winning. It’s definitely going to take our ‘A’ game (tonight).”

The Wildcats are 35-4 against the Hornets and have won the last 12 games. And they’re on a roll, having won nine of their last 10.

On Thursday, the Wildcats beat Northern Arizona 76-67 in Flagstaff, Ariz., giving coach Randy Rahe his 100th conference win, ranking him third all-time in Big Sky history.

Senior guard Davion Berry, a boyhood buddy and former teammate of NBA star Damian Lillard, is fourth in the Big Sky in scoring at 18.5 points. Joel Bolomboy, a 6-foot-9 sophomore and last season’s Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, leads the conference in rebounding (10.9 a game) while 6-10 senior center Kyle Tresnak is tied for the lead in blocked shots (1.9).

“It’s a statement game,” McKinney said. “With schools like us, where some of us might not have been as heavily recruited as some of their guys, we want to show that we’re D-I players, too – that we can hang with the best of them.”

Alumni games set – If you want to watch some former Hornets play again, there will be two men’s alumni games today. Players from the 1980s and earlier will take on players from the 1990s at 2 p.m. Players from 2000 to 2007 will play those from 2007 to 2013 at 3 p.m. Admission is free..

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

Read more articles by Bill Paterson

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