Sacramento State had everything going its way heading into Thursday’s road game against Southern Utah and had every opportunity to make history against a team it had beaten handily two months ago.
The Big Sky Conference leaders were riding a three-game win streak and had been victorious in 10 of their previous 12 outings.
With a chance to lock up their first Big Sky regular-season championship and first conference title since 1977, all they had to do was get past a scrappy, inconsistent Southern Utah squad desperately hoping to claw its way into eighth and final conference tournament spot.
Easier said than done.
Mikh McKinney and Cody Demps combined for 35 points, but Sac State (19-9, 13-4) couldn’t overcome a 54 percent Southern Utah shooting effort, and the Thunderbirds (10-18, 7-10) stole a 69-65 victory at Centrum Arena.
“We knew coming in here it was going to be a tough place to play,” said Demps, who finished with 16 points and four assists. “I think our big thing tonight was that we didn’t follow the scouting report and it gave (Southern Utah) confidence. It’s not about our ability, it’s about our mental focus.”
One guy who definitely got past the Hornets’ radar was redshirt freshman James McGee. McGee drained four three-pointers Thursday, bringing his season total to 61.
In all, Southern Utah went 9 of 19 from long range and nullified the outstanding job the Hornets did of keeping them out of the paint.
“They have some great shooters out there; we blew a couple of assignments and they got going,” McKinney said. “You can’t let a team like that get going.”
For the first 10 minutes of the game it looked like a repeat of the teams’ Jan. 3 matchup that Sac State won by 15 points.
The Hornets sprinted to a 17-9 lead and made it look easy with 12 of the points coming from the paint.
But just as quickly as the lead had materialized, it evaporated as the T-Birds went on an 8-0 run in less than two minutes to tie the score 17-17.
Sac State would get the lead back on the next possession on a layup from Alex Tiffin and led 31-26 before Southern Utah strung together another series and went ahead 35-32 on a three-point shot from Trey Kennedy with 1:29 to go.
The Hornets pulled to within a point just before the break on a jumper from Nick Hornsby and went into the locker room trailing 37-36.
The second half played out just as tough as the first had ended, with the teams trading leads eight times and neither leading by more than seven points.
Sac State had its last lead at 65-64 with 2:39 to play after another Hornsby layup but missed its final five shots while Southern Utah went 2 of 2 and added a free throw for the four-point win.
The Hornets’ potential conference winner will have to wait until Saturday when they visit Northern Arizona in the season finale.
Thursday’s loss is already behind them.
“We have to put it behind us,” McKinney said. “We have a game Saturday, and this one’s behind us now.”