The Hornets’ game plan was to not let Tyler Harvey beat them.
Mission accomplished. The problem for the Sacramento State men’s basketball team was that the rest of the Eastern Washington Eagles simply couldn’t be stopped.
Felix Von Hofe came off the bench to hit five three-pointers in the first half, the Eagles hit nine triples before halftime and the outcome was hardly in doubt the final 30 minutes.
By the time Venky Jois, Eastern Washington’s first-team All-Big Sky power forward, flushed home his third alley-oop dunk, the game was all but decided, evidenced by Eagles walk-on Daniel Hill entering the game with five minutes left.
Eastern Washington shot 60 percent in the first half, then made its first 10 shots of the second half before letting off the gas in a 91-83 win at Dahlberg Arena in the Big Sky Championship semifinals.
Despite a deficit that swelled to 26 points, Sac State never stopped fighting. The Hornets ended the game on a 40-20 run for a respectable final margin.
“Our team will never quit,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said following his team’s 11th loss in 31 outings this season. “That’s the core of who our guys are. Sac State has never been a winning program and now we have 20 wins. We were a basket away from hosting the league championship. These guys sitting next to me (seniors Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity) have left a legacy.”
Harvey, the NCAA’s leading scorer who dropped 42 points to tie a tournament record in a first-round win over Idaho, finished the first half scoreless and had nine points overall. He entered the game averaging more than 23 points. But the attention paid Harvey by the Hornets led to countless open looks as the Eagles drilled 15 three-pointers, the second-most in tournament history.
“Their game plan was to stop Tyler Harvey, and you can do that, but if you do that, you are not going to stop the entire Eastern Washington team,” fourth-year Eagles coach Jim Hayford said.
Jois, another first-team All-Big Sky pick for the co-league champions, scored 12 of his 19 points after halftime – including three thunderous two-handed dunks. Von Hofe was 7 for 8 from downtown and 8 for 10 overall in scoring a career-high 23 points off the bench. And Bogdan Bliznyuk, the Big Sky’s Freshman of the Year, carried the Eastern Washington offense with 12 of his 16 points before halftime as the Eagles built a 20-point lead that lasted until the last four minutes.
“It’s always easy to get shots like that when a team puts a huge amount of pressure on a superstar like Tyler,” Von Hofe said. “My teammates were getting me the ball in the right spots and I wanted to keep shooting it.”
Eastern Washington’s stars took a seat on the bench with more than five minutes to play, but McKinney and the Hornets kept trying to rally. The Big Sky MVP had 24 points and seven assists, and Garrity scored all 18 of his points after halftime, but it was not enough, as Sac State’s Big Sky season ended with its first semifinal appearance since 2006. Katz said his team has been invited to the ColllegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT) and hopes for a National Invitation Tournament bid.
“It’s been a long journey and it has been fun,” McKinney said. “It’s not over yet. We are going to play in the postseason somewhere, whether it’s the NIT or the CIT.”