MEN'S BASKETBALL FACES NORTHERN ARIZONA ON SATURDAY IN REGULAR SEASON HOME FINALE
A Brief Preview
Having clinched a Big Sky Tournament berth for the fourth-consecutive season by virtue of Portland State''s victory over Weber State last Saturday, the Sacramento State men''s basketball squad (14-12, 5-7) returns to the Hornets Nest for the regular-season home finale on Saturday, Feb. 25. The Hornets will take on first-place Northern Arizona at 3:35 p.m. as part of a doubleheader that will feature the Sacramento State and Northern Arizona women''s teams playing at 1:05 p.m.
Despite clinching a spot in Big Sky Tournament, the Hornets have fallen on hard times lately, losing seven of their last eight games. However, Sacramento State''s record could be much different if the team played better in the closing minutes of games. Of the Hornets'' seven conference losses, six have come by six points or less. In five of those losses, Sacramento State had an opportunity to win or tie with the last possession, but failed to score each time. That included last Wednesday''s game at Montana when freshman Loren Leath missed a three-pointer with five seconds left that would have tied the game. With 1:57 left in that game, the Montana scorekeeper subtracted a point from Sacramento State''s total, an error that Montana apologized for last week.
Picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky preseason coaches poll, Northern Arizona will enter Saturday''s game with a 19-8 overall record and an 11-1 mark in the conference. The Lumberjacks are currently 2.5 games ahead of second-place Montana (8-3) in the conference standings. Should NAU finish in first, the Lumberjacks would host the semifinals and championship game of the Big Sky Tournament (March 7-8). It would mark NAU''s first Big Sky regular-season championship since the 1996-97 season. The Lumberjacks could clinch the conference crown before Saturday''s game if Montana loses at Eastern Washington on Thursday.
Like every game this season, Saturday''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 and Jason Ross will provide color.
Sacramento State, which won its first seven home games of the season by nine points or more, has lost each of its last four home contests in heartbreaking fashion. 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 three losses during the last eight games came on the road at Northern Arizona (89-83), Eastern Washington (trailed by one point with 2:41 to play, but lost 87-75) and Montana (84-79). Dating back to the beginning of the year, seven of the Hornets'' 12 losses have come by five points or less.
With just two games remaining on the conference schedule, Sacramento State still has an opportunity to host a Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal game for the third-straight season. The Hornets are currently in fifth place in the league standings, 1.5 games behind fourth-place Montana State and a game ahead of sixth-place Weber State (4-9). The top six teams in the eight-member league advance to the Big Sky Tournament, with the quarterfinal games taking place on 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.
Montana State has three games remaining on its schedule, including games on the road this week at Portland State (Feb. 23) and Eastern Washington (Feb. 25). Montana State''s final game of the season will be against the Hornets in Bozeman on Monday, Feb. 27. Depending on MSU''s results on Thursday and Saturday, a win for Sacramento State over Northern Arizona could set up a showdown on Monday that features the Bobcats and Hornets playing for the right to host a Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal game.
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.
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 is currently averaging 13.9 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 1-6 and Harris has scored in double figures just three times during that stretch.
Northern Arizona enters Saturday''s game with the league''s top scoring offense, averaging 82.2 points per game against Big Sky competition. The Lumberjacks have won 13 of their last 15 games, and that includes a 79-58 loss at Western Kentucky as part of the ESPN Bracket Buster schedule last Saturday. Also among Big Sky leaders (against conference teams), NAU leads the league in scoring margin (+4.9), field goal percentage (.513), free throw percentage (.794), three-point field goal percentage (.422) and rebounding defense (28.6).
The Lumberjacks currently have four players averaging at least 11.0 points per game, comprised of senior guard Kelly Golob (14.3 ppg), junior forward Ruben Boykin Jr. (13.3 ppg), freshman guard Tyrone Bazy (11.1 ppg) and senior guard Steven Sir (11.0 ppg). Boykin Jr. also leads the Big Sky in rebounding (7.4 rpg) and Sir is the conference leader in three-pointers per game (2.89). Golob has led the team in scoring in four of the last six games and nine times overall this season. Bazy is the only NAU player to start all 27 games this season.