They have already broken their own NCAA records for three-pointers made and attempted in a season, and they rank second nationally among 343 Division I teams in scoring at 86.1 points per game, second only to top-ranked and defending national champion Connecticut (89.7).
But the Sacramento State women’s basketball team is more than just a run and gun offensive team. The Hornets have evolved into menacing defensive pests, which could be a point in their favor when they host to Saint Mary’s on Thursdaynight in the WNIT round of 16.
The Hornets lost 99-91 to the Gaels (22-10) Nov. 24 in Moraga, part of a back-breaking nonconference schedule in which Sac State finished 2-9 while nine new players were acclimating to second-year coach Bunky Harkleroad’s unique brand of ball called “The System.” Sac State (18-15) was in its infancy of playing a new, more diverse full-court pressing defense.
In crushing Big Sky Conference rival Eastern Washington 84-49 on Monday, the Hornets not only allowed the fewest points this season, it was the fewest allowed by Sac State in six seasons.
The Hornets held visiting Eastern Washington to 23.8 shooting in the second half and forced a WNIT record 33 turnovers. Five weeks earlier, the Eagles beat the Hornets 80-79 in Sacramento.
Sac State leads the nation in steals, turnover ratio and offensive rebounding. With a rotation of 10 players or more, four to five players exit and enter the game in 45- to 90-second waves to put into play assistant coach Bill Baxter’s sets of full-court, man-to-man and zone-trapping pressure.
Baxter built a Hall of Fame career at El Camino High School by having players pressure opponents into oblivion.
“Defense has been the key for us,” Harkleroad said. “Coach Baxter coined the phrase ‘bodies flying,’ and when we have bodies flying around, it’s going to give us a shot (to win).”
Last year, Sac State jumped to a school-record 11-1 start. Then injuries, a lack of depth and the ability of opposing coaches to solve the Hornets’ defensive methods sent them tumbling. They finished 10-10 in the Big Sky and made the conference tournament as the seventh seed. The Hornets lost in the opening round.
This season has seen the opposite. The Hornets finished a school-best second in the Big Sky and reached the tournament semifinals before losing a heartbreaking 81-79 overtime game to Northern Colorado.
The Hornets have won 16 of their past 21 games and seven of their past eight while making their first postseason run in school history.
“We’re not as predictable as last year,” Harkleroad said. “Now, if we have two groups playing their hearts out defensively and a team tries to stall, we’re still going to leave them exhausted. That’s the counter we didn’t have last year.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.
All Hornet home games stream live on WatchBigSky.com. Thursday's game will also stream live on hornetsports.com/radio