College Sports

Sac State women aim to keep up tempo, wear down opponents

Sacramento State women's basketball coach Bunky Harkleroad with his players at practice on Tuesday, October, 21, 2014 in Sacramento.
Sacramento State women's basketball coach Bunky Harkleroad with his players at practice on Tuesday, October, 21, 2014 in Sacramento. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The Sacramento State women have posted an array of amazing statistics en route to Wednesday’s Big Sky Conference tournament opener against Montana State in Missoula, Mont.

The Hornets lead NCAA Division I in three-pointers made per game (12.7), steals (16.9), offensive rebounds (20.0) and turnover margin (plus 12.14). And they are third nationally in scoring (86.7 points) playing “The System,” coach Bunky Harkleroad’s unique, entertaining and sometimes confounding strategy some have described as basketball on steroids.

But Sac State’s most telling number may be in minutes played.

Only senior Fantasia Hilliard, an All-Big Sky first-team point guard, and sophomore forward Hallie Gennett average more than 20 minutes because the Hornets usually play 12 to 15 players and substitute a new lineup every minute or so as they try to keep up the tempo and wear down teams with nonstop pressure.

Harkleroad selects each game’s starters based on statistics from the previous game; no player has started every game, and there have been 26 starting lineups in the 29 regular-season games.

Harkleroad admits “The System” isn’t for everyone.

“We’re thankful and fortunate we have a good group of people on our team,” Harkleroad said. “They’re a pretty unselfish bunch. They have bought in.”

Despite the team’s scoring average, Hilliard (13.5) and Gennett (12.3) are the team’s only double-figure scorers.

Players used to logging heavy minutes have adapted to Harkleroad’s system.

“As a college player, who doesn’t want to play more minutes?” senior guard T.K. Burse said. “But in our system, where everyone gets a shot to play and contribute, it’s a huge advantage. We don’t worry about minutes. We worry about what’s on the scoreboard.”

Hilliard said the rotations emphasize the importance of intensity every second.

“We always want to be the aggressors, and the way we play allows us to do that,” said Hilliard, the Hornets’ career assists and steals leader.

As a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College last season, forward Gretchen Harrigan averaged 25.2 points and 31.6 minutes. She made All-State and was the Big 8 Conference MVP. But she’s averaging 9.8 points in 18.6 minutes for the Hornets, and she has scored 20 or more points in four games but five or fewer in nine others.

Yet Harrigan, a Big Sky Conference honorable mention, likes Harkleroad’s way.

“It’s a fun and really different way to play basketball,” Harrigan said. “You’ve got players stepping up on different days, so it really makes it tough for opposing teams to prepare for us. We have a lot of weapons, and we try to use them all.”

Last year in Harkleroad’s first season, the Hornets had a school-record 11-1 start and grabbed national headlines for their high-octane offense.

Then injuries, a lack of depth and the ability of opposing coaches to defend and attack “The System” doomed the Hornets in Big Sky play. They finished 10-10, landed the No. 7 and final seed in the conference tournament and lost to Southern Utah 86-78 in the opener.

This season has been the opposite.

The Hornets were 2-9 during a brutal nonconference schedule that included losses to four Pacific-12 Conference teams while they tried to integrate nine new players and adapt to a more diverse and sophisticated defense.

Then the Hornets won a school-record 13 Big Sky games and finished second. They outscored their last three opponents by an average of 38 points.

“We’ve improved, and we are playing better as a team, top to bottom,” Harkleroad said. “We went through the challenging schedule early, and it tested us.”

The Hornets (15-14, 13-5) expect a big test against Montana State (15-4, 9-9). They lost to the Bobcats 91-64 on Jan. 29 in Bozeman, and the Bobcats are 8-3 since, including a 65-57 victory over conference champion Montana on Saturday.

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

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