Sacramento State couldn’t have picked a more challenging place to play in arguably one of the men’s basketball program’s biggest games in history.
The Hornets (19-9, 13-4) face surging Northern Arizona (17-13, 12-5) Saturday afternoon in Flagstaff in the Big Sky Conference regular-season finale.
Hanging in the balance is Sac State’s chances of a Big Sky championship and the opportunity to host the conference tournament – both program firsts – next weekend at The Well, Sac State’s health and fitness center.
But the mountains of Arizona haven’t been friendly to Sac State through the years. The Hornets have lost 10 consecutive games (2-20 overall) in Flagstaff and are 0-6 in coach Brian Katz’s seven-year tenure.
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The Hornets face a Northern Arizona team that has won nine of its last 11 games, is 10-2 at home and, like the Hornets, have a shot at earning a piece of the Big Sky title.
“Winning a championship at any level is never easy, but it’s particularly tough in the Big Sky,” said Katz.
Sac State, Eastern Washington and Montana are all 13-4. Northern Arizona is 12-5.
The Hornets could still share the Big Sky title and host the tournament with a loss, but only if Eastern Washington falls at eighth-place Weber State and Montana is upset by 10th-place Montana State on Saturday. That would result in a four-team tie for first but Sac State would still hold the tiebreaker to host the tournament.
“I don’t care about how we host,” Katz said. “We told our guys (Friday) all we are focusing on right now is winning a conference title, something that hasn’t been done at our school since 1977. The rest is irrelevant.”
Sac State opened its Big Sky season Jan. 1 by beating Northern Arizona 78-73 at The Nest. That bruising game featured a combined 46 fouls but Sac State shot 9 of 13 from three-point range and senior guard Dylan Garrity led the way for the Hornets with 26 points.
Sac State could use that type of performance again from their fourth-year starting guard, though Garrity struggled in Thursday’s disappointing 69-65 loss at ninth-place Southern Utah. Garrity shot 1 for 9 in finishing with seven points. The Hornets made only 2 of 8 three-pointers and Southern Utah made 9 of 19, the difference in the game according to Katz.
“We didn’t do a good job defending that,” Katz said. “I know Dylan is pretty determined to right himself as we all are.”
While the Hornets struggled in Cedar City, Utah, Northern Arizona won a gritty 58-51 decision over visiting Portland State on Thursday. The Lumberjacks out-rebounded the Vikings 55-32, led by 6-foot-7 junior Jordyn Martin’s career best 14.
Third-year coach Jack Murphy is 1 for 2 in matchups with teams trying to clinch the right to host the tournament. Two years ago Montana beat the Lumberjacks in Missoula to clinch and last year Northern Arizona prevented Weber State from cutting down the nets with an overtime upset in Ogden, Utah, though the Wildcats eventually finished first.
“It would be nice to stop a team from winning on your home floor obviously, but the other challenge for us is you are just playing a really good basketball team,” Murphy said. “You want to compete and play well against them because you know you might see them again next week.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506. Cody Bashore of the Arizona Daily Sun contributed to this report.