Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz said a key reason for the Hornets’ success this season is his players’ focus.
So even with so much at stake for first place for Sac State (19-8, 13-3) in Thursday’s Big Sky Conference game at Southern Utah (9-18, 6-10), he isn’t worried his players will be overcome with its significance.
A victory in Cedar City, Utah, would give Sac State its first Big Sky title and its first conference crown since winning the Far Western Conference in 1977.
It also would mean Sac State would host the Big Sky tournament next week at The Well and give the Hornets their first 20-win season since they were 22-5 in 1987-88 as a Division II school. By winning the Big Sky regular-season title, the Hornets would clinch a spot in the National Invitational Tournament should they fail to win the Big Sky tourney championship and its automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
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“I think our guys are good at living in the moment,” Katz said. “I think outsiders – the fans, the students – are drinking (the buzz) in better than we are because we’re in the middle of it. Our guys are good at focusing on the process.”
Senior guard Mikh McKinney said the significance of the game isn’t lost on the players.
“If we get to play the tournament here, it will be big for the whole city and Sacramento State,” McKinney said. “But no matter how fun it would be, how exciting it would be and how great it would be, it all leads back to staying focused on Thursday.”
The Hornets, ranked No. 14 in this week’s CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25, could be challenged by Southern Utah because the Thunderbirds are trying to land the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament.
Southern Utah is in ninth place but holds the tiebreaker if it can close on eighth-place Weber State (12-15, 7-9) in the final two games.
“You’ve got a game with two teams that have a lot to play for, and it’s a tough environment,” Katz said. “They draw pretty well, so it’s not an easy place to play.”
Even if Sac State, 3-3 in Big Sky road games this season and 3-8 all-time in Cedar City, loses to Southern Utah, it can still win the conference title and host the tournament with a win at Northern Arizona on Saturday, regardless of whether second-place Montana (17-11, 13-4), which has a bye Thursday, wins at rival Montana State (7-22, 4-13) on Saturday.
Montana would be Big Sky co-champs with the Hornets, but Sac State has the tiebreaker because of its 70-69 win over the Grizzlies on Jan. 31.
Eastern Washington (21-8, 12-4) is still in the hunt to win the conference and host the tournament, too. The Eagles play at Idaho State (6-22, 3-13) Thursday and at Weber State on Saturday, but they need Sac State to lose both games this week and Montana to lose Saturday.
Northern Arizona (16-13, 11-5) would finish as co-champion if it beats visiting Portland State (14-12, 8-8) Thursday and the Hornets on Saturday, but it can’t host the tournament because it doesn’t hold the tiebreaker advantage.
Aggies in title hunt, too – UC Davis (22-4, 12-2) can win the Big West Conference title outright and earn the top seed for next week’s conference tournament at the Honda Center in Anaheim with a win over UC Riverside (14-14, 7-7) on Thursday at the Pavilion.
UCD, No. 10 in the Mid-Major Top 25, could become the first Big West team to win the conference title outright one season after finishing last since the league switched from two divisions to one prior to the 2000-01 season.
If UCD loses to UC Riverside and second-place UC Irvine (17-11, 10-4) beats Cal State Fullerton (9-20, 1-13) on Thursday, UC Irvine would still have a shot at a co-title and the top seed.
It would have to beat UC Davis on Saturday at the Pavilion and hope fifth-place Hawaii (19-11, 7-7) can finish ahead of fourth-place Long Beach State (14-16, 8-6).
Hornet women focused on second – The Sac State (13-14, 11-5) women will try to secure the No. 2 seed for next weekend’s Big Sky tournament when it finishes the regular season Thursday against Southern Utah (13-13, 6-10) and Saturday against Northern Arizona (12-15, 8-8), both at the Nest.
First-place Montana will host the tournament.
Sac State seniors Takara Burse, Andrea Chenier and Fantasia Hilliard will be honored Saturday in their final appearance at the Nest.
Hilliard, the former Sacramento High star, is Sac State’s career assists (674) and steals (289) leader and is fifth in scoring (1,349). She also is third in Big Sky history in steals and assists.
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.
UPCOMING BASKETBALL GAMES
Men: Thursday at Southern Utah, 6:05 p.m., 1380; Saturday at Northern Arizona, 1:05 p.m., 1380
Women: Thursday vs. Southern Utah, 7 p.m.; Saturday vs. Northern Arizona, 2 p.m.
Men: Thursday vs. UC Riverside, 7 p.m., 105.5; Saturday vs. UC Irvine, 7 p.m., 105.5
Women: Thursday at UC Riverside, 7 p.m., 90.3; Saturday at UC Irvine, 2 p.m., 90.3