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Andy Furillo: Sacramento State, UC Davis basketball big league, too

Sac State huddles at a rip-roaring, entertaining game Tuesday against UC Davis at The Nest. The Hornets won 84-79.
Sac State huddles at a rip-roaring, entertaining game Tuesday against UC Davis at The Nest. The Hornets won 84-79. aseng@sacbee.com

On this day of thanks, one thing Sacramento sports fans should be giving it for is the realization they live in a town with two types of major-league basketball.

You don’t hear much talk about one of them in bars around town, as much as you do the Kings. But it is a fact the college championship for which Sacramento State and UC Davis play is every bit as big a deal as the one offered by the NBA. At least most TV-watching Americans seem to think so.

Final score, in case you missed it: Duke vs. Wisconsin in the NCAA final, 28.3 million viewers; Golden State vs. Cleveland in the NBA Finals Game 6 decider, 23.25 million.

It was easy to ignore Sac State and UC Davis when they moved up from Division II and racked up the losses. It took Sac State 24 years to compile a winning record. The blessed event occurred last season, when the Hornets went 21-12. UC Davis toiled 11 years in D-I before the Aggies came up winners for the first time, also last season. Their record was 25-7.

As the 2015-16 season unfolds, it appears these two teams like the taste of winning. It showed it Tuesday night in Hornet Gym, which goes by the nickname The Nest. More than 1,400 birds filled the seats and roosted several rows deep behind the baseline to watch Sac State and UC Davis run at each other for 40 rip-roaring minutes of entertainment.

Sac State won 84-79, in a game where the teams played badminton with the lead. Fifteen times, it went over the net. Nine times, the match fell tied. It was so much fun they’re going to do it again next Wednesday in Davis. Don’t forget the ear plugs if you catch the game at the Pavilion, when we’ll see if UC Davis backers can deafen as well as Sac State’s flock.

The victory improved Sac State’s record to 4-0. One of the Hornets’ wins came against Arizona State, and even if the Sun Devils don’t compare with the Blue Devils, they do play in the Pacific-12 Conference, and it was a monumental accomplishment for Sac State of the Big Sky Conference.

Davis fell to 2-2 in the early stages of its rebuilding season.

Brian Katz, the coach at Sac State, and Jim Les, the head man at UC Davis, both see their programs as the next big things on the Sacramento sports scene. Last year, it was the simple beauty of a winning season. Now, it’s the embellishment of their programs into long-term winners, and maybe appearances in the great annual sports festival of the United States known as the NCAA Tournament.

“For years and years, I think people’s mentality was that college basketball wasn’t relevant here in Sacramento,” Katz said. “We’re hoping to become part of the group that is making it relevant.”

Les said: “This is a region that has a lot of passionate basketball fans. There’s no reason they can’t spread their love beyond the borders of the Kings and support UC Davis and Sac State.”

Sac State graduated Mikh McKinney, the 2014-15 Big Sky Player of the Year, who now plays for the Antwerp Giants of the Belgian League. McKinney’s running mate on last season’s Hornets, Dylan Garrity, also graduated. He landed briefly aboard S.C. Lusitania Expert, of the Portuguese Basketball League, where he played until departing late last month.

Against the Aggies, the Katz contingent showed drive at the guard position, where Cody Demps and Marcus Graves can blow past defenders on every possession. Swingman Justin Strings made them sing from inside and out with 5-for-5 shooting against Davis. Those three and big man Eric Stuteville and guard Dreon Barlett gave the Hornets five men in double figures.

“We feel like we have some depth,” Katz said, “the most depth we’ve ever had.”

UC Davis lost maybe the best player the region has seen when Corey Hawkins graduated. Hawkins signed with the Miami Heat, but has since been assigned to Sioux Falls of the NBA Development League.

The Aggies return last year’s Big West Sixth Man of the Year in Josh Fox, who appears to be the best man on this year’s team. Two days before Thanksgiving, the 6-6 forward gobbled up 18 rebounds to go along with a side dish of 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Deep threat Brynton Lemar hoisted eight from afar on Tuesday and nailed four while finishing with 21 points. Point guard Darius Graham sped and spun for 17.

“I really like this group,” Les said. “When it’s all said and done, they’re going to have a lot to say with the Big West Conference and beyond.”

Sac State plays another Pac-12 team on Dec. 21 when the Hornets go to Stanford. Thankfully they won’t have to worry about tackling Christian McCaffrey. This weekend, they play South Dakota and Pacific in the Sacramento State Invitational, to be held in the friendly confines of The Nest, to which the Hornets will be confined until they come up with the cash to build a reputable on-campus arena.

UC Davis visits Utah Valley this weekend. The Aggies’ December schedule will take them to St. Mary’s and Boise State and have them at home for Air Force.

Conference action begins in January, and maybe by then the colleges can get a word in edgewise around here when it comes to talking sports.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Duke University’s opponent in the 2015 NCAA men’s national championship basketball game. Duke played Wisconsin.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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