Everything was in place for the Sacramento State men’s team Thursday night at the Nest.
The Hornets had their first sellout of the season on a court where they were riding a seven-game home winning streak.
But against Big Sky Conference defending regular-season and tournament champion Montana, which came in with a 14-game win streak over the Hornets, it was a different story.
The Grizzlies (17-11, 12-7) took advantage of an early 15-0 first-half run and coasted to a 70-55 victory over the shellshocked Hornets, now losers of three straight.
Sacramento State (13-15, 9-10) will have to beat Montana State (14-16, 9-10) at home Saturday and hope that one of two scenarios work out in Saturday’s other Big Sky games in order for the Hornets to make the conference tournament. First-place Weber State, Montana, North Dakota and Northern Arizona have qualified for four of the seven playoff spots.
Five other teams are still playoff-eligible for the last three playoff spots, including Sac State and Montana State, and four teams could finish with 10-10 records, forcing a tiebreaking procedure.
Sac State can make the postseason with a win and an Eastern Washington loss against visiting Weber State or a Hornets win and losses by Northern Colorado (at one-win Southern Utah) and Portland State (hosting Idaho State).
“There’s a chance, there’s a possibility,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “I’m not sure if it’s slim or decent, 50 percent or 10 percent. We need to win Saturday, and we’re going to need a little help.”
Sacramento State, which had won seven of eight games before losing on the road last week at Weber State and Idaho State, couldn’t help itself against Montana.
The Hornets committed 11 first-half turnovers – 15 for the game – and Montana turned them into an 18-2 advantage in points off turnovers.
After the Hornets took a 12-8 lead on a Mikh McKinney layup with 14:23 to go, Montana scored the next 15 points for a 23-12 lead and led by 19 just seconds before the end of the first half.
Sac State tried unsuccessfully to play catchup the rest of the way but struggled against Montana’s active zone.
The Hornets closed to within nine points, 53-44, with 9:15 to go on a Jordan Salley dunk from a McKinney assist before the Grizzlies quickly pulled away again.
Jordan Gregory led Montana with 18 points, all on three-pointers, and Kareem Jamar and Keron DeShields each added 10 as the Grizzles shot 54 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range.
Dylan Garrity led Sac State with 18 points, and McKinney added 10 points and six rebounds.
Last year, Sac State lost to Montana and Montana State on the road to finish 13-14 and miss the tournament after finishing in a three-way tie for sixth.
Garrity said he and his teammates are determined to finish the regular season on a winning note.
“Saturday’s now our biggest game of the year,” Garrity said. “Our backs are up against the wall right now, but I think you are going to see a team on Saturday that’s going to fight its butt off.”
An announced crowd of 1,146 filled the Nest. At the start and early in the game, a large contingent of Sac State cheerleaders pumped up the crowd along with a large turnout of boisterous football players, some wearing mock hard hats, painted faces and masks.