Before the Big Sky Conference went to a neutral site this season, the Sacramento State men never experienced anything resembling a home-court advantage in this tournament in the last 11 years.
But with most of the announced crowd of 1,723 at the Reno Events Center rooting for the 10th-seeded Hornets against No. 7 Montana State, the players couldn’t help but be inspired.
The Hornets used guts, grit and Justin Strings’ 25 points and seven rebounds to hold off the Bobcats 79-75 and advance to Thursday’s quarterfinals against No. 2 Montana.
“I think the crowd had a big influence on us,” said Strings, who was 8 of 16 from the floor and 5 of 7 from the foul line. “It’s great having the fan base behind us. It’s nice having the tournament in Reno so we can have all our boosters and our fans to help root us on. It’s definitely a big help.”
Strings’ three-pointer with 1:54 to play was the Hornets’ only basket in the final 9:19. Cody Demps’ three-pointer had put Sac State (14-16) ahead 61-49, its largest lead.
But the Hornets continued to play lockdown defense and made 15 of 22 free throws in the final 7:06. Nick Hornsby put it out of reach by hitting two free throws with 3.8 seconds left for the final four-point margin.
Demps had 15 points and five assists, Dreon Barlett had 13 points on 3-of-4 shooting from the field and 4 of 4 from the foul line, and Marcus Graves added nine points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Tyler Hall led Montana State (14-17) with 17 points and eight rebounds and Marcus Colbert and Sarp Gobeloglu had 16 points each. Gobeloglu’s final basket, a three-pointer with seven seconds remaining, cut Sac State’s lead to 77-75.
Montana State beat Sac State twice in close games during the regular season, but without Demps, Sac State’s senior leader. Montana State used its rebounding dominance and excellent three-point shooting to prevail in both those games.
The Bobcats led the Big Sky in offensive rebounding and averaged 37.8 percent while taking more three-point shots than any team in the league and having set a Big Sky record with 25 three-point shots made against Northern Arizona earlier in the season. Hall, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year and the Bobcats’ three-point record holder, came in hitting 43.8 percent from that distance.
But the Hornets ran an army of defenders against Hall, who made just 1 of 6 from long distance, and held the Bobcats to a dismal 6-of-28 shooting from beyond the arc. They matched Montana State in rebounding with 38.
“This was just like the other two games against them – just brawls,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “I thought our guys set a tone early and really came out and played hard, and I think that was the difference in the game.”
Montana State coach Brian Fish agreed.
“I thought we settled too much for jumpers and shot 28 threes instead of driving to the basket and drawing some fouls,” Fish said. “Without making excuses, we have a team over there in Sac State that advanced to the CIT last year and that experienced showed.”
Katz said having Demps in the lineup was huge. He missed nine games with a quad injury during the Big Sky season.
“He is a 3 1/2 year starter, a mechanical engineering major,” Katz said. “Guys watch him and say, ‘Does he sit with you all day, every day in the film room?’ Because he looks like a coach out there the way he plays.”
Demps said he paid attention when he watched the two previous Montana State games from the bench.
“The whole span when I was out gave me a chance to observe the game from a different point of view,” Demps said. “Seeing that, the two losses, was motivation, too.”
Sac State, which has never played in a Big Sky tournament championship game, hosted conference tournament games at The Nest in 2004 and 2005, when quarterfinal rounds were held at home sites. The Hornets lost both times to Weber State. With the win over Montana State, they are now 4-6 all-time in tournament play since joining the Big Sky Conference in 1996-97.
The win also gave Sac State tournament wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time. Last year, the Hornets defeated Portland State in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Eastern Washington in the semifinals.
Big Sky Conference tournaments
- ▪ Wednesday: Sac State women vs. Eastern Washington, 5:35 p.m.
- ▪ Thursday: Sac State men vs. Montana, 5:35 p.m.