It used to be that Northern Arizona could put a check mark in the win column when it came to playing Sacramento State.
At one point in the long series between the two Big Sky Conference men’s basketball teams, Northern Arizona had won 13 straight.
But Sac State’s hard-fought and exciting 78-73 victory over the Lumberjacks on Thursday night in this season’s Big Sky Conference opener shows how far the Hornets have come in recent years.
Northern Arizona (5-9, 0-1) was Sports Illustrated’s preseason pick to win the Big Sky Conference, and the Lumberjacks were selected to finish second in the media and third in the coaches’ preseason conference polls.
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But Sac State (7-5, 1-0), which was picked to finish fourth in both polls, is now 3-1 in its last four home meetings with the Lumberjacks.
“That goes to our senior leadership,” said Sac State senior guard Dylan Garrity, who led the Hornets with 26 points and hit five critical free throws in the final 37 seconds to keep Northern Arizona at bay. Garrity’s performance comes on the heels of a career-high 28 points Saturday in a 74-49 win over Utah Valley.
“We’ve been through it before,” Garrity said of fellow senior guard Mikh McKinney, junior guard Cody Demps and senior reserves Zach Mills and Alex Tiffin. “It’s nothing new to us. We made a few mistakes, but we still came out on top. We’re in first place; now we’ve got to stay there.”
The Hornets looked like they might pull away from Northern Arizona when Garrity hit a three-pointer to put Sacramento State ahead 61-48 with 7:15 to play. But the athletic Lumberjacks rallied to close to within 70-68 on a Quinton Upshur dunk with 2:24 remaining.
But McKinney hit a fadeaway three-pointer, Garrity made his free throws and the Hornets hung on despite losing Demps, Mills and Nick Hornsby to fouls.
Garrity made five of seven three-pointers and was 11 of 12 from the foul line. He also added four assists and three rebounds as Sac State led for all but 2 minutes and 19 seconds.
Four Hornets joined Garrity in double figures. Sophomore post Eric Stuteville had 16 points and five rebounds; Demps 13 points and a team-high six rebounds; Mills 12 points and three rebounds, and McKinney 11 points and eight assists.
Upshur led Northern Arizona with 18 points and five rebounds; Jordyn Martin had 14 points and seven rebounds and Kris Yanku 10 assists and nine points.
“We expect them all to be like that in the Big Sky,” said Sac State coach Brian Katz. “What a battle it’s going to be. Teams don’t give up, they don’t go away.”
“Our scout team has been doing well all year,” McKinney said. “They did a great job of simulating what we’re going to see tonight. Northern Arizona loves to pressure, tries to get steals and comes right at you. We owe a lot to the scout team guys.”
The Hornets are 12-33 overall and 10-13 at home against the Lumberjacks in a series that dates back to the 1991-1992 season.
Sac State will play Southern Utah on Saturday at The Nest.
Northern Arizona 64, Sac State 60 in Flagstaff, Ariz. – The Hornets (2-10, 0-1) were held to a season-low 60 points on 28 percent shooting and made just two field goals over the last 10 minutes to fall to the Lumberjacks (5-7, 1-0) in a Big Sky Conference opener.
The Hornets led 52-44 with 10:41 remaining but went the next five minutes and 53 seconds without a point in falling behind.
The Hornets rallied to tie 60-60 on a Gretchen Harrigan jumper with 2:04 to play, before Northern Arizona closed with two free throws and a layup.
Erikka Banks had 22 points and 19 rebounds and Raven Anderson 13 points and 11 rebounds for the hosts.
Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct the length of Northern Arizona’s winning streak.