In the annals of Sacramento State men’s basketball history, coach Brian Katz is unsure where to rank his team’s dramatic 83-79 comeback victory over Big Sky Conference power Montana on Thursday night at the Nest.
Katz just knows that it’s huge for a young bunch that has struggled with its confidence through most of the conference season without senior leader Cody Demps.
Demps missed his eighth consecutive game Thursday with a quad injury, and the Hornets found themselves trailing by 20 points early in the second half against a Grizzlies team that was atop the conference coming in and had won nine of its last 10 games. The Hornets, meanwhile, have been mired near the bottom of the conference standings.
But in the final 19 minutes, the Hornets caught fire and suddenly came of age.
Sophomore guards Marcus Graves and Jiday Ugbaja each scored 18 points and junior center Eric Stuteville had 15 points and nine rebounds. In the second half, the Hornets shot 61.5 percent from the field (16 of 26) and 78.3 percent from the foul line. They held Montana, which shot 51.6 percent in the first 20 minutes, to 41.4 percent after halftime.
The Hornets trailed 43-29 at the half.
“We just said (at the half), look,” Katz said. “You are playing so skittish. … Let’s try to take it one play at a time, let’s just chip away.”
The Hornets finished on a 16-5 run in the final 4:47.
Ugbaja’s jumper from the top of the key gave the Hornets their first lead, 76-75, with 1:53 remaining. Nick Hornsby hit a layup 17 seconds later after a Montana turnover and the Hornets made five free throws in the final 13 seconds.
“I just have a lot of confidence in my game,” said Ugbaja, making just his third career start. “I knew it was going in. … It’s definitely a confidence boost. We’ve been struggling a little bit at home.”
Sophomore forward Justin Strings had 13 points and freshman guard Jeff Wu added 11, all in the second half, as the Hornets (10-10, 3-6) snapped a two-game losing streak at the Nest.
Brandon Gfeller had 21 points and Martin Breunig 20 to lead the Grizzlies (13-8, 8-2), who dropped into second place behind Weber State.
Graves, who played all but 23 seconds, added five assists, four rebounds and three steals. He was 8 of 11 from the foul line.
Ugbaja’s 18 points on 5 of 8 shooting from the floor and 8 of 10 from the foul line was a career high by 10 points. He also added five rebounds.
“Coach gave us a great game plan but we weren’t executing very well in the first half,” Ugbaja said. “In the second half we just went out loose and played our game.”
Katz said that while they miss Demps, who may be close to returning, his absence allowed players such as Wu and Ugbaja to gain big-game experience while Graves and Strings have become key leaders.
Katz was pleased to see the 6-foot-11 Stuteville emerge from his funk. After opening conference play with a double double in a 76-68 loss at Portland State on Jan. 2, he disappeared offensively and defensively and lost his starting spot. He has come off the bench in the last three games, replaced by the 5-11 Ugbaja.
“Tonight is how he should play, and I think he will the rest of the year,” Katz said. “I said, ‘You’re angry because you’re not starting,’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ You need to play angry. And he did tonight.”
It was the Hornets’ third win in the last 18 meetings with Montana. But it was the second consecutive win against the Grizzlies at the Nest for the Hornets.
Last season Dylan Garrity buried a three-pointer with 6.2 seconds remaining to give the Hornets a 70-69 win.
Katz credited the raucous crowd of 965 and the first appearance by the school band at the game for an assist.
“The crowd and the band were unbelievable tonight,” Katz said. “I think they definitely had an effect on the outcome of the game. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the crowd and the band won this game for us.”
Cal State Fullerton 61, UC Davis 57 in Fullerton – Khalil Ahmad scored 19 points, including two late free throws, to help the Titans (9-12, 2-6 Big West Conference) beat the Aggies (9-12, 4-4).
Cal State Fullerton led by eight with 58 seconds left. But Brynton Lemar hit a three-pointer on the next possession, then Josh Fox sank a free throw, and Darius Graham’s three-pointer with 13 seconds left made it a two-point game. Lemar fouled Ahmad off the in-bound play, but Ahmad made both, and UC Davis missed twice in the last seven seconds.
The Titans got 13 points from Kyle Allman and 10 points from Tre’ Coggins. Kennedy Esume added 14 boards, as Fullerton won the rebound battle 51-33.
Graham led UCD with 16 points. Brynton Lemar finished with 13 points, while Neal Monson had 12 points and 13 rebounds.
UC Riverside 80, UC Davis 73 in Riverside – Freshman Morgan Bertsch scored 20 points as the Aggies (12-9, 5-3 Big West) nearly erased a 22-point second-half deficit before falling to the Highlanders (14-7, 7-0), UCD reported. The Aggies trailed by four points with 1:35 to go, but UC Riverside scored six of the final nine points.
Brittany Crain led the Highlanders with 23 points, and Annelise Ito added 22.
Montana 90, Sac State 83 in Missoula, Mont. – Senior Adella Randle-El scored a career-high 30 points, but the Lady Griz (12-9, 5-5 Big Sky) ended a four-game skid and handed the Hornets (7-13, 4-5) their third straight loss, Sac State reported.
Montana led 51-48 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter before going on a 20-8 run over the next six minutes to open a game-high 71-56 lead. Sac State scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter to cut its deficit to seven points but could get no closer.
Hornets junior Brianna Burgos equaled her career high with six three-pointers and finished with 18 points. Senior Sydonia Daniels came off the bench to record her first double double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. She also blocked two shots.
Kayleigh Valley led Montana with 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Alycia Simms added 17 points and 16 rebounds for the Lady Griz.
The Associated Press and Bee Sports staff contributed to this report.