A Brief Preview
After yet another heartbreaking home loss to Idaho State on Saturday, the Sacramento State men''s basketball squad (14-11, 5-6) returns to action this Wednesday, Feb. 15, as the team travels to Montana for a 6:05 p.m. PST tipoff. After beginning the season with a 13-5 overall record and a 4-0 mark in the Big Sky, the Hornets have fallen on hard times, losing six of their last seven games. However, Sacramento State could just as easily be 9-2 as four of the team''s losses (each at home) during the last seven games have come by three points or less. In fact, in each of those four games which the Hornets lost by a combined nine points, Sacramento State had an opportunity to win or tie with the last possession, but failed to score each time.
The Hornets'' last four home games have gone as follows: a 78-75 loss to Montana State, a 73-71 loss to Montana, a 76-73 overtime loss to Weber State in which Sacramento blew a 15-point first half lead, and a 72-71 loss to Idaho State in which the Hornets blew a 17-point first half lead. Sacramento State''s other two losses during the seven-game stretch came on the road at Northern Arizona (89-83) and Eastern Washington (trailed by one point with 2:41 to play, but lost 87-75). Dating back to the beginning of the season, six of the Hornets'' 11 losses have come by three points or less.
Montana (17-5, 7-3) will enter Wednesday''s game with a 10-1 home record and a second-place ranking in the Big Sky standings. The Grizzlies, who were selected to finish second in both the Big Sky preseason media and coaches polls, defeated the Hornets earlier this season after Kevin Criswell converted a driving layup with seven seconds to play. Sacramento State had a chance to win the game, but Alex Bausley''s three-point attempt at the buzzer rimmed out. Montana is a perfect 5-0 at home against conference competition with each of those victories coming by at least four points.
Like every game this season, Wednesday''s contest can be heard live on KTKZ 1380 AM and 105.5 FM as well as www.hornetsports.com. Steve McElroy, who is currently in his ninth season as voice of the Hornets, will handle the play-by-play.
With just three games remaining on the conference schedule, Sacramento State can clinch its fourth-straight appearance in the Big Sky Tournament with one more victory and an Idaho State loss. Besides Wednesday''s game against Montana, the Hornets will also play their last home contest against Northern Arizona (Feb. 25) and will close the regular season at Montana State (Feb. 27).
Sacramento State is currently in fifth place in the Big Sky standings, one game ahead of sixth-place Weber State (4-7) and two ahead of Idaho State (3-8). The top six teams in the eight-member league advance to the Big Sky Tournament, which begins March 4. The top two seeds receive a first round bye while the No. 3 seed hosts No. 6, and No. 4 hosts No. 5.
Northern Arizona sits atop the conference standings with a 10-1 record, followed by second-place Montana (7-3), and Montana State and Eastern Washington, who both have 6-4 records. Should NAU remain atop the Big Sky standings, a win for the Hornets over the Lumberjacks would loom large for possible tiebreaker scenarios, and would clinch a conference tournament berth as well.
Despite its recent struggles, Sacramento State is assured of finishing with a regular-season winning percentage of at least .500 for the first time since the 1988-89 season. In addition, the Hornets'' 14 victories are the most in the Div. I era (1991-pres.) and the most since 1989-90. The team''s 5-6 league record is the same mark the team had after 11 games during each of the last two years. Last season, the Hornets won their final three conference games, and in 2003-04, the team won two of the last three.
What makes the Hornets'' struggles even more baffling is the team was 4-1 without the services of senior swingman Jason Harris, who missed the first five Big Sky games because of academic ineligibility. Harris leads the team with an average of 13.8 points per game and was selected as the Big Sky preseason player of the year by five different publications. However, since his return to the lineup, Sacramento State is 1-5 and Harris has not scored in double figures in each of the last three games.
Montana features two of the Big Sky''s top scorers in sophomore Andrew Strait (2nd with 16.9 ppg) and senior Kevin Criswell (4th with 15.7 ppg). The two combined for 39 points and 13 rebounds during the last meeting against the Hornets.
Montana is currently first in the Big Sky (all games) in scoring margin (+8.4), assists (17.82 apg), field goal percentage (.496) and assist-to-turnover ratio (+1.23). The Grizzlies are also second in the league in scoring (78.7 ppg), free throw percentage (.765) and steals (7.77 spg).
After beginning the conference season with a 6-1 record, Montana has dropped two of its last three games (both on the road), including a 72-67 setback at Weber State and a 95-70 defeat at Idaho State. The Grizzlies, however, defeated Montana State at home this past Saturday by the score of 70-61.
All 13 pages of Sacramento State''s game notes can be accessed by clicking on the link above the story.