Brian Katz is always one to wear emotions on his sleeve. But he lost it here, twice, and apologizes for none of it.
The veteran Sacramento State basketball coach had to bite his lip and hold in tears Saturday night, which was Senior Night for a host of Hornets whose efforts have elevated a once moribund program into a title contender.
With cornerstone anchor guards Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity leading the way and bruising-yet-skilled sophomore forward Nick Hornsby powering inside for 17 points and 11 rebounds, Sac State pulled away from North Dakota 74-66 in a Big Sky Conference game in the festive, fun and ever-full Nest.
It was a game the Hornets had to have, to maintain momentum and to hold onto their conference championship hopes in a league that Katz said is akin to “18 fistfights every season.”
McKinney scored 16 points and Garrity 12 as Sac State (18-8, 12-3) ran its record to 13-1 at home, including 10-0 in conference play in inching tantalizingly closer to winning the Big Sky. Three road games remain.
Katz has long promised that his teams would compete with vigor and pride, and with statewide recruits. Before the tip, Katz embraced the families of all of his four seniors at midcourt, and then he was in a high-five and huggy mood when it was over as an overflow crowd of 1,231 stood and applauded, including alums spanning six decades and scores of students who chanted, “Sac-ra-men-to!”
The other honored Hornets seniors were 6-foot-9 forward Alex Tiffin of Thousand Oaks and 6-5 forward Zach Mills of Yorba Linda. Mills muscled in for 13 points and Tiffin had four points, four rebounds and five fouls, per his gritty nature.
“Those four guys, those seniors,” Katz said later, composing himself, “they changed the whole thing here. They’ll be remembered here forever.”
Garrity, the gritty 6-2 grinder from Huntington Beach with the flair for the late three-point dramatics, thanked Katz for believing in him. Standing next to him after the game in a jubilant setting was McKinney, the 6-1 three-year Hornets player from Union City who bonded with Katz and Garrity.
“I owe that guy (Katz) everything,” said Garrity, emotional himself in reflection. “No one wanted me out of high school. He’s the only one who offered me a Division I ride. We wanted to make something special here. Everyone’s emotional and crying because of what this means. It feels nice to know that we’ve built something special. We wanted to make a legacy, and that’s happened. We’ve put Sac State basketball on the map. We’ve laid the groundwork.”
McKinney agreed. He and his teammates, per routine, waded through the crowd immediately after pulling away from a North Dakota team that pushed the Hornets last month before falling 63-61 on a late McKinney floater. Players shook hands with fans, took photos and offered hugs all around, for children and senior citizens.
“This all just feels so good for everybody, the whole program, the school,” McKinney said. “Me, Dylan and coach Katz, we had a vision. We wanted to pack the Nest. We wanted to create a culture of Hornet pride.”
Now tied for first place in the Big Sky with Montana after Eastern Washington lost earlier in the day to Northern Arizona 73-69, Sac State boasts its best record since the 1987-88 team went 22-8 while competing in Division II. Before this season, Sac State had produced just three winning seasons in the previous 38. In winning 13 of their last 16 games overall, the Hornets have won nine in a row at home, the longest streak since 1972.
Should Sac State win the Big Sky, it will host the conference tournament on campus at the larger venue known as The Well.
“That’d be huge, great for the school,” Katz said. “And it’s a credit to the four seniors that made it possible. But we have to keep winning.”
Said McKinney, “to play the tournament here would be awesome.”
Quinton Hooker scored 20 and Jaron Nash 17 for North Dakota (8-18, 4-11).
With the win, the Hornets (12-14, 10-5) clinched a berth in the Big Sky tournament for the fourth consecutive year.