Sacramento State will play the first home postseason women’s basketball game in school history against Big Sky Conference rival Eastern Washington on Monday night in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
The appearance comes on the heels of the Hornets winning their first postseason game in school history, 87-79 over Pacific on Thursday in the 64-team tournament opener in Stockton. Sac State (17-15) received the WNIT bid after finishing second in the Big Sky during the regular season.
It’s all an impressive accomplishment for a team that was picked to finish ninth in the coaches’ preseason poll and started the season 2-10.
It’s also a chance for the women to move from beyond the shadow of the Sac State men’s team that concluded arguably its most successful season in school history with a loss to Northern Arizona on Saturday in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
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Not that second-year women’s coach Bunky Harkleroad is complaining.
“It’s been great seeing how the men have been able to get a little better each year under coach (Brian) Katz and see the support they have going on,” Harkleroad said. “People are excited for college basketball around here, and we can feel it, too. We love playing in the Nest.”
While the men went 14-2 in Sac State’s cozy 1,012-seat gym, the women are 10-2 on the home floor. But one of those losses was to Eastern Washington 80-79 on Feb. 12. The Hornets beat the Eagles 73-67 in Cheney on Jan. 17.
Eastern Washington (21-11) finished fourth in the Big Sky, reached the tournament semifinals and beat Washington State 67-65 on Jade Redmon’s buzzer-beater in their WNIT opener.
“Both our games with them came down to the last few plays,” Harkleroad said. “I really think they have five of the best players in the league.”
Those five – Redmon, Delany Hodgins, Lexie Nelson, Hayley Hodgins and Melissa Williams – have started all 32 games and each averages 10 or more points a game. Sac State has had 29 different starting lineups in 32 games and has played as many as 15 players in a game this year.
Senior point guard Fantasia Hilliard is the Hornets’ scoring leader at 13.3 points per game, and the school’s career assists and steals leader is the primary facilitator of Harkleroad’s frenetic “The System.” But otherwise, it’s been a win-by-committee group, though junior guard Adella Randle-El has been a postseason force.
In the Hornets’ two Big Sky tournament games and the WNIT win, the community college transfer from Racine, Wis., led the team in averaging 18.3 points per game. She had a career-high 24 points in a Big Sky tournament semifinal overtime loss to Northern Colorado.
“Adella is one of nine new players who had to make the transition to playing for a D-I program,” Harkleroad said. “It took a little while for her to establish some confidence. But she stuck with it, and she’s been great for us lately.”
The Hornets lead the NCAA with 12.5 three-pointers, 16.7 steals, and 20.0 offensive rebounds per game and with a plus-11.88 turnover margin. They are third in scoring at 86.2 points.
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.