The biggest game in the history of Sacramento State basketball was also the most heartbreaking.
A shot to win at least a share of the Big Sky Conference championship for the first time likely died here with a 70-68 loss to Northern Arizona. Also lost was a chance to host the conference postseason tournament on the Sacramento State campus, where the Hornets were undefeated (8-0) in conference play this season.
As their team bus rumbled toward Phoenix, where they spent the night, the Hornets held out hope that Eastern Washington and Montana would both lose Saturday night to still bring a co-championship and tournament to Sacramento.
That hope was also extinguished when Montana defeated Montana State. The Grizzlies will now host the conference tournament.
Sacramento State entered the final week of the season with two chances to reach a level of success never experienced on a campus that has never been a hotbed for Division I basketball.
An upset loss in Southern Utah on Thursday made Saturday’s game bigger than any in all the years the Hornets have humbly laced up sneakers in seasons marked by many more setbacks than big wins.
So much was at stake: If the Hornets had won Saturday and hosted the Big Sky, they would have been forced to play in a makeshift gym in the campus Wellness Center. The Nest, the dismal 1,200-seat gym where Sac State plays its games, is unfit to host a big tournament with ESPN televising the championship game next Saturday night.
For a time, it looked as if the Hornets would have to troop up the hill to Reno because all worthy gyms in the Sacramento area were booked.
Games in the The Well, the state-of-art health and wellness center, would not have been ideal. But the Big Sky relented and gave the go-ahead to have the tournament there if Sac State could see the season out successfully.
Hosting the tournament would have highlighted the shoddy athletic facilities used by an inspired basketball team.
The pressure would have been raised on students, alums and Sac State administrators to build a real gym on campus for a real basketball team.
With Sacramento State now one of the best teams in the Big Sky, the Hornets could still prevail in a tournament hosted in Missoula, Mont. It’s just a lot harder now.
“We’re ready for this tournament,” said a still-upbeat Brian Katz, the Sac State coach who has revived a once flagging program.
“Our guys left it all out there. I was really proud of them. We don’t know where the tournament is going to be played, and we don’t really care.”
Sac State made a grueling six-hour bus ride here from Southern Utah, arriving in Flagstaff at 3 a.m. Friday. The team slept in and tried to rest and get their bearings.
This lovely city is at 7,000 feet elevation, a tough place to play an all-or-nothing game. Upon arriving, it’s common to feel a little vertigo until your body adjusts. It’s common to feel a little short of breath.
A half-dozen Hornets fans were in attendance, and some said they felt their team ran out of gas late in Southern Utah – a much more winnable game than the one here.
But from the beginning Saturday, Sac State came out firing. Center Eric Stuteville and guard Dylan Garrity gave the Hornets a lead they would hold until midway through the second half.
The problem was they got manhandled by Northern Arizona. Though the Hornets shot 53 percent from the field and three-point line, the Lumberjacks owned the boards. Northern Arizona outrebounded Sac State 43-17 and scored 22 points on second chances to the Hornets’ five. The Lumberjacks made 19 of 21 free throws, negating a thrilling run by Mikh McKinney, the Hornets’ MVP candidate, who carried his team late.
McKinney was the Hornets’ offense down the stretch, leading the team with 19 points. His jumper with 2:46 to play gave the Hornets a 68-64 lead, but it was the final time Sac State scored. McKinney missed a jump shot late, then lost the ball out of bounds near the basket with 19 seconds remaining.
With Northern Arizona living at the free throw line and dominating the game down low, the Hornets were forced to make critical shots every time down the court. They came up one shot short.
“It’s so heartbreaking,” said Hornets fan Jack Ford, who traveled with the team to all but two of their road games this season. A 1969 Sac State graduate, Ford has been one of the most passionate Hornets basketball fans for decades – accompanying far-less talented teams to more defeats than he cares to remember.
This season was different. This season was unprecedented Division I success for Sac State. Ford said he was so nervous, he barely slept Friday night.
Retired after a long career of selling insurance, Ford wore an expression of a grandparent feeling empathy for kids he loves who suffered a big setback despite his willing them forward.
It was that kind of day, that kind of season.
“We were just so close,” he said.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.