A last-second shot by Mikh McKinney bounced off the rim, leaving Sacramento State empty-handed in its pursuit of the men’s basketball program’s first Big Sky Conference championship.
After Northern Arizona’s Kris Yanku scored on a layup with 3.5 seconds left, Sac State inbounded the ball trailing by two. McKinney sprinted down the court and got off a three-point attempt before the buzzer, only for it to bounce away. The 70-68 loss was the Hornets’ 11th in a row at Northern Arizona and leaves them 2-21 all-time here.
Hornets coach Brian Katz had a timeout remaining following Yanku’s go-ahead basket but elected to ride with his leading scorer once he received the inbound pass.
“I looked and saw he had the ball in transition,” Katz said. “I knew he would get down and get a reasonable shot and he did. I always tell them don’t call a timeout – if I want to call a timeout, I will.”
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McKinney said he was happy with the shot attempt, feeling that was most likely the best shot, given the scenario.
“We practice that, and coach Katz trusts me,” McKinney said. “I knew he wasn’t going to call a timeout, and I knew I had enough time to get the ball up the court and get a good look. It just didn’t fall.”
The senior guard and candidate for Big Sky MVP had taken over midway through the second half of the game, scoring 12 consecutive points for the Hornets in a five-minute stretch.
After tying the score 58-58 on a layup with 7:11 to play, McKinney drew a foul on a three-point attempt and gave the Hornets a 61-58 lead. Going one-on-one with Northern Arizona’s Quinton Upshur, McKinney kept beating the Lumberjacks as he poured it on after a slow first half.
“When it is down at the end of the game, we feel like we want the ball in his hands,” Katz said. “He has made a lot of plays for us this year. He has had the ball in his hands at the end in four other games and we won all four, either scoring or passing to a guy.”
However, McKinney’s jumper with 2:46 left to give the Hornets a 68-64 lead was the team’s final basket. Yanku switched onto him during the final stretch and slapped the ball out of McKinney’s hands with 19.5 seconds left. The officials reviewed the play and determined McKinney lost control of the ball out of bounds and awarded possession to Northern Arizona, setting up the winning basket.
“I felt like I got fouled, but the refs didn’t call it,” said McKinney, who finished with a team-high 19 points and seven assists. “So it wasn’t a foul and it was a turnover.”
Sac State made Northern Arizona pay in the first half, pulling up from outside off screens that created multiple open looks. Coming off the bench, Dreon Barlett connected on wide-open three-pointers on back-to-back possessions, as did Zach Mills later in the first half. Barlett finished with 11 points.
The Hornets led the entire first half, at one point holding a 10-point advantage after Mills’ second three-pointer. Making 6 of 10 three-point attempts in the first half, Sac State scored 39 points, easily on pace to surpass Northern Arizona’s 66.4 points allowed in conference play.
However, Katz said the Lumberjacks did a good job of adjusting in the second half, as the Hornets’ shooting percentage dipped from 61.5 in the first half to 40.9 in the second, with just two three-pointers. Still, it was Sac State’s overall 52.1 percent shooting that kept the Hornets in the game. Northern Arizona dominated the boards at both ends, outrebounding Sac State 43-17 and scoring 22 points on second-chance shots.
A win would have given the Hornets their first title since joining the Big Sky in 1991 and their first conference title of any kind since 1977. Sac State, which had plans to host the conference tournament for the first time, will now travel to Montana this Thursday to play in a first-round game.