Sacramento State is so used to coming from behind to win games this season that it didn't quite know how to handle Incarnate Word Monday night at The Nest.
The Hornets jumped out to a 12-0 lead, led by as many as 17 points in the first half and were up as many as nine points midway in the second half against the visitors from San Antonio.
But they needed spectacular play from sophomores Marcus Graves and Justin Strings down the stretch to hold off the Cardinals 73-70 to move to 6-2 on the season.
Strings, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward, and Graves, a 6-foot guard, combined for the Hornets' last 19 points.
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Incarnate Word, which never led, twice tied the game in the second half before a Graves' layup with 4:50 to play put the Hornets ahead to stay 61-59.
But life didn't get comfortable for Sac State until Graves hit two free throws with 28 seconds that put the Hornets up 73-67. Incarnate Word missed three-point attempts with 18 seconds and seven seconds before Shawn Johnson's beyond-half-court, all-net heave at the buzzer made it a three-point outcome.
Strings finished with a career-high 23 points on 9 of 16 shooting and Graves added 20 points on 7 of 9 shooting and had three steals. Graves, a starter, had 11 points and Strings, the Hornets' sixth man, added eight during their final scoring flurry.
Senior guard Cody Demps, making his 71st consecutive start, had 14 points and six assists and junior forward Nick Hornsby had a team-high eight rebounds for Sac State. Sophomore guard Jontrell Walker led the Cardinals (3-3) with 18 points and Johnson, a sophomore guard, had 12 points and nine rebounds. Senior guard Mitchell Badillo had a game-high nine assists.
Sac State’s 6-2 start is the program’s best after eight games in the Division I era (1991-pres.), and best in 27 years. The last Hornet squad to start a season 6-2 was the 1988-89 D-II team. The Hornets improved to 4-1 at home this season and have won 25 of their last 29 games inside the Nest.
Of Sac State's five wins entering Monday's game, those against Arizona State, Seattle and UC Davis have come after the Hornets trailed by eight or more points in the second half. Pacific also had a brief second-half lead before falling 79-71 Nov. 29 at the Nest.
The Hornets also clawed their way back from a season-high 13-point deficit and twice had chances to take the lead in the final 20 seconds before falling 66-61 at UCD in their Causeway Cup rematch.
So playing Incarnate Word was a different experience.
"Basketball is an amazing journey," said Sac State coach Brian Katz. "By the end of the year you'll come from behind, you'll lose leads. The whole key is this: Can you lose the lead and still win the game? In years past we wouldn't have won this game. We would have found a way to lose it.
"I think our culture has changed. Now our guys believe we are going to win."
Katz said the Hornets played aggressively for the majority of the game in leading for nearly 38 minutes. But there was a five-and-one-half minute stretch in the second half where Incarnate Word outscored the Hornets 15-6 to put them on their heels.
"The most aggressive team will always have an advantage but there was a period where they were the most aggressive team, and we seemed to be playing not to lose," Katz said.
But Katz also noted that Incarnate Word, despite being in Division I for only the third year, is no patsy. The Cardinals went 18-11 last season, reached the same postseason CIT tournament as the Hornets and aren't afraid to play the big boys.
Last year they upset Nebraska and Princeton and the Cardinals' two losses coming into the Sac State game were to No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 21 Purdue.
"They won 18 games last year, and they have the same team back minus one," Katz said. "They're good."
They came into the game leading NCAA D-I teams in steals with 12.6, though they had a season-low eight against the Hornets.
Strings and Graves played reserve roles on last year's history-making Hornets team that had its first winning season of the D-I era. Strings averaged 4.2 minutes in 25 games and Graves 5.3 in 13.
Both learned well by watching and are now go-to players. Graves is averaging a team-leading 15.4 points in 34.8 minutes and Strings 13.8 points while playing 25.9 minutes. He is hitting 62.7 percent from the field and 48.3 percent from three-point range.
"He's versatile," Katz said. "He can come in and play the wing, he can play inside. He's certainly been our most efficient player to date, not even close."
The Hornets will play five of their next six games on the road, starting Saturday at Portland.