Fueled by a disappointing loss two days earlier, Sacramento State ended eight years of futility Saturday night at the Nest by rolling past Montana State 84-59 in their do-or-die regular-season finale and earning their fifth trip to the Big Sky Conference tournament.
Sacramento State (14-15, 10-10 Big Sky) captured the seventh and last playoff spot in the 11-team conference. The Hornets will play No. 2 North Dakota in Thursday’s tournament opener at Weber State in Ogden, Utah.
Sac State’s victory over the Bobcats (14-17, 9-11) came two days after the Hornets played their worst game of the season in falling to visiting Montana 70-55 in front of their only sellout crowd of the season.
That left the Hornets needing help from another Big Sky team, and they got it when conference champion Weber State defeated Eastern Washington 82-78 earlier in the afternoon.
In winning their eighth Big Sky game in 10 attempts at home, the Hornets delivered an energetic and entertaining show of dunks, steals, three-pointers and other highlight-reel plays to the crowd of 1,001.
Junior leaders Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity scored 19 and 12 points. And senior Jordan Salley, sophomore Cody Demps and freshmen Eric Stuteville and Nick Hornsby, often cast as role players, ramped up their games.
Demps (Pleasant Grove High School) scored a season-high 17 points. Stuteville (Casa Roble) scored 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Hornsby had 10 points, eight rebounds and six assists. And Salley, in his final home game, had six points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
“It was emotional and crazy,” said Salley, who was honored before the game along with fellow seniors Kendell Groom and Joey Quigley. “We weren’t focused on making the tournament. Regardless of whether we made it or not, we wanted to come out and give it our all and win our last home game.”
McKinney said there wasn’t much head hanging after Thursday’s loss or even concern about the Weber State-Eastern Washington game.
“To be honest about it, I didn’t hear about that game until we were celebrating after our win,” McKinney said. “One thing we wanted to do is stay away from the media and the scoreboard and just focus on our game.”
Last season, Sacramento State lost at Montana State on the last day of the regular season to finish in a three-way tie for sixth. But the Hornets lost the tiebreaker and missed the tournament for the seventh consecutive year.
That Sac State team also finished 14-15, but this season the Hornets have 10 conference wins, the most since joining the Big Sky in 1996-97.
“We wanted to get into the tournament,” said sixth-year Hornets coach Brian Katz, whose team won two games in his first season. “We want to get to the point where we are contending for a Big Sky title and getting to the NCAA (Tournament).”