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Andy Furillo: Sacramento State aims to soar in Big Sky tournament

Sacramento State Hornets forward Justin Strings (3) shoots around Montana State Bobcats forward Sarp Gobeloglu (13) in round one of the Big Sky Conference Tournament at the Reno Events Center on Tuesday March 8, 2016.
Sacramento State Hornets forward Justin Strings (3) shoots around Montana State Bobcats forward Sarp Gobeloglu (13) in round one of the Big Sky Conference Tournament at the Reno Events Center on Tuesday March 8, 2016. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Mathematical wizards will tell you every time: Under the logic that governs the unfolding of a college basketball tournament, you can’t become its champion unless you win your first game. By that axiom, you now must conclude in an assessment of Sacramento State’s chances in the Big Sky Conference that the Hornets are still very much in the running to win their second.

Sac State is one of eight men’s teams still alive, thanks to a 79-75 win over Montana State on Tuesday. Only three more wins in a row and the Hornets will be declared Big Sky champions and allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. Next up for the 10th-seeded Hornets on Thursday is second-seeded Montana, presumably a much tougher cut of meat than State.

You might think winning four games in a row is a daunting challenge, even though somebody does it every year. The task for Sac State in the tournament at the Reno Events Center is fairly tame, compared to the competition across the street in the National Bowling Stadium, home to the sport that has replaced divorce as one of the town’s leading attractions.

Rather than the mere 12 in the Big Sky tournament, an estimated 8,000 teams will be at each other’s throats in this year’s United States Bowling Congress Open Championships. Instead of determining its champion in less than a week as they do in the Big Sky, the USBC tournament runs uninterrupted through July. Four months of exploding pins may sound like an eternity to your eardrums, but don’t worry – there will still be plenty of time for the keglers to make it to Burning Man.

First, Cody Demps, the guard coach Brian Katz thought could have been the conference MVP, got hurt and missed 11 games. Then Dreon Barlett and Nick Hornsbywent down, and it seemed like the Hornets would not buzz in harmony again.

For awhile this season, it looked as if Sac State would not catch fire like the totem ritualistically set ablaze at the end of the art-and-radical-self-expression extravaganza every September at Black Rock Desert about 120 miles north.

First, Cody Demps, the guard coach Brian Katz thought could have been the conference MVP, got hurt and missed 11 games. Then Dreon Barlett and Nick Hornsby went down, and it seemed as if the Hornets would not buzz in harmony again. The team that opened the season with four consecutive wins had been decimated.

Now healthy, the Hornets took care of Montana State on Tuesday. Demps scored 15 points and led the team in rebounds with nine. Off the bench, Barlett scored 13 points on only four shots. Hornsby also was solid with eight points and six rebounds, and his two free throws put the game away in the final four seconds.

But the guy who merited his name on the building marquee, along with incoming Carrie Underwood, was a sophomore from Southern California with a terrific basketball name. Justin Strings recently was named honorable mention for the all-conference team; Tuesday he showed he’s destined for higher mentions.

The 6-foot-7 Strings is no string bean at 235 pounds. Against Montana State, he muscled into traffic to flip in shots from short range with his nifty little left-handed moves around the basket. He also cast from afar, making 4 of 6 three-point shots. Strings finished with 25 points, none bigger than the three ball he nailed into the Bobcats’ pelts after they closed a 12-point deficit to three in the final minutes. He also had seven rebounds. A couple more nights like that and he will depart Reno with the tournament MVP trophy.

We’re just thinking one game at a time, but my deal is – I feel like we could win it.

Brian Katz, Sacramento State men’s basketball coach

Hard working and high achieving in the classroom as well as on the court, the communications major from Carson delivered the message to Montana State and the Big Sky that he is going to play hard every second he is on the floor, even if the clock shows 00:01 and his team is up by four. With Montana State coming down the floor in desperation, the ball was knocked away. With one second left, Strings dove for the loose ball at midcourt and secured it, as if the fate of a country depended on the possession arrow as time expired.

“I’ll do anything, any cost,” Strings said. “I think throughout the game we had great energy, and that just carried over throughout.”

In a town where gambling still is at least as important as bowling to its future, it’s worth noting that the big board in the William Hill Sports Book at Cal-Neva showed that you could have had Sac State on Tuesday night plus 2 1/2 points. A William Hill spokesman characterized the action on Big Sky games as “brisk,” with much of it on Weber State and Montana, the top two finishers in the regular season.

Now that the Hornets have won one, Katz figures he can win them all, with Montana next up Thursday.

“We’re just thinking one game at a time, but my deal is – I feel like we could win it,” Katz said. “To be honest, there are 10 teams still here (as of Tuesday night) who can win it, and we’re one of them.”

You don’t need to be a math genius to figure that out.

Thursday’s game

Men’s Big Sky Conference tournament quarterfinal, Sacramento State vs. Montana, 5:30 p.m., 1380

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