Sacramento State went on a 21-4 run to open the second half and played its best defensive game of the Big Sky Conference season in defeating Northern Arizona 64-51 in the regular season finale Saturday night at the Nest.
It was the Hornets’ largest margin of victory in conference.
Justin Strings scored 13 points, Eric Stuteville had 11 points and six rebounds and Marcus Graves 10 points and six assists to lead the Hornets (13-16, 6-12) to their second consecutive victory. Senior guards Dreon Barlett and Cody Demps, playing their last games at the Nest, combined for 17 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.
Torry Johnson had 13 points and was the only player in double figures for the Lumberjacks (5-24, 3-15), who shot an icy 31.6 percent from the floor (18 of 57). Northern Arizona scoring leader Kris Yanku, who had 32 points in an 89-81 loss at Portland State on Thursday, was held scoreless. The 6-foot-4 junior guard was averaging 15.2 points but missed on all four of his attempts.
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No. 10 seeded Sac State will play No. 7 Montana State in the first round of the Big Sky Conference tournament at 5:35 p.m. on Tuesday at the Reno Events Center. This will be the conference’s first neutral site tournament and the first in which all 12 teams qualify.
“I like where we are,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said about heading to Reno. “What I like about our group is that they are very competitive. They won’t give in. Adversity doesn’t bother them.”
Demps, who missed nine conference games with a quad injury, said the goal on the final home stand was to build some confidence after surviving a late-season 1-6 stretch. Sac State beat Southern Utah 69-63 in overtime on Thursday to start the ball rolling.
“That’s what we were trying to do, get some confidence, get some momentum because any team can win that tournament,” said Demps, the former Pleasant Grove High School star who had eight points, seven rebounds and six assists.
The Hornets were going against a Northern Arizona team that had some big wins during Sac State’s history-making campaign last season.
Northern Arizona beat the Hornets 70-68 on the last day of the regular season in Flagstaff to deny them a share of the Big Sky title and a chance to host the tournament for the first time.
Northern Arizona later eliminated Sac State from the CIT tournament by beating the Hornets 78-73 at the Nest.
“These guys know each other well and our guys certainly remember last year,” Katz said. “But it’s a healthy, competitive rivalry.”
For the first 20 minutes, it looked as if the Hornets might lose again. They trailed by as many as eight points 10 minutes in and were down 29-25 at the half.
“At halftime we just gathered ourselves and saw that we had eight turnovers,” said Barlett, who had nine points and a team-high seven rebounds, “We knew we had to stop turning the ball over, execute more, be more fundamental and everything would handle itself.”
Sac State opened the second half with a 14-2 run. Then after a Lumberjacks’ basket, the Hornets had a 7-0 run to lead 46-33 with 10:24 to play.
Northern Arizona made just seven shots in the second half in shooting 25.9 percent.
Katz said it was tough holding back his emotions during the pre-game ceremony honoring seniors Barlett, Demps and their families.
The four-year roommates were among the first high school players Katz recruited for Sac State. The first, former Hornets star Dylan Garrity, returned to the Nest on Saturday to stand beside Barlett, as his old Sac State and Edison High of Huntington Beach teammate was recognized in front of the announced crowd of 793.
“It was hard not to cry,” Katz said. “I don’t mind crying when they come out (at the end). But I don’t want to before the game. But I did. I bit my lip pretty hard.
“I flashed back to the first time I saw Dreon and I remember his mom dropping him off at school. When Chris Demps (Cody’s father) came out, I said, ‘Can you believe how fast this went?’ ”