SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Sacramento State scored on seven of its final 11 possessions spanning the last 6:02 of the game to beat Incarnate Word, 73-70, in a non-conference men's basketball game Monday evening at the Nest.
A pair of sophomores, Justin Strings (career-high 23) and Marcus Graves (20) combined for 43 of the Hornets' 73 points, including 25 points in the second half. In fact, it was Graves and Strings who combined to score Sacramento State's final 19 points of the game spanning the last 7:19.
Playing the first of just two home games during the entire month of December, tonight's victory came against an Incarnate Word squad that reached the CIT postseason tournament last year. The Cardinals (3-3), who hail from San Antonio and are members of the Southland Conference, are currently in their third season as a Div. I program. The team entered the year with nine consecutive winning seasons.
With the victory, Sacramento State improved to 6-2, the team's best mark after eight games in the Div. I era (1991-pres.), and best in 27 years. The last Hornet squad to start a season 6-2 was the 1988-89 Div. II team. In addition, the Hornets improved to 4-1 at home this season, and have won 25 of their last 29 games inside the Nest.
Sacramento State's six wins are also tied for the program's most prior to the start of the conference season since the 2005-06 team ripped off nine victories before conference play began.
The Hornets, who led by as many as 17 points in the first half, saw Incarnate Word make a furious comeback and eventually tie the game at 56-56 with 6:20 remaining. However, it was Strings or Graves who combined to score on each of Sacramento State's next five possessions. During that five-possession span, Strings connected on a pair of 3-pointers at the 6:02 and 3:27 marks, and Graves buried a 3-pointer, a layup and a pair of free throws. By the time Strings connected at the 3:27 mark, the Hornets had a 69-64 lead.
Incarnate Word would get a 3-pointer from Mitchell Badillo to close within, 69-67, but Strings answered with a jumper at the 53-second mark and Graves added a pair of free throws to give the Hornets a 73-67 lead with 28 seconds left. Sacramento State would miss the front end of a pair of one-and-one free throw opportunities in the final 17 seconds, and Incarnate Word's Shawn Johnson made a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to provide the final score.
Incarnate Word, which entered the game leading the nation with 12.6 steals per game, finished with a season-low eight as both teams committed just 11 turnovers. After outscoring the Cardinals in the first half, 42-35, it was Incarnate Word that held a 35-31 advantage in the second half. Sacramento State jumped out to a 12-0 lead to start the game as Incarnate Word did not score its first points until Jontrell Walker's 3-pointer at the 14:20 mark of the first half.
Sacramento State shot .491 (28-57) from the field and .364 (8-22) from the 3-point line while holding large advantages in points off turnovers (18-8), fast break points (10-2) and points off the bench (28-14). Strings contributed 23 of the bench's 28 points, as the sophomore has now scored at least 13 points in all but two games. The rebounding numbers were nearly identical (34-33 in favor of UIW) and both teams had the same number of assists (15), turnovers (11) and steals (8). The Hornets had six blocked shots, including a season-high four from center Eric Stuteville.
Incarnate Word shot .404 (23-57) from the field and .360 (9-25) from the 3-point line while taking advantage of 21 Sacramento State fouls. The Cardinals went to the free throw line seven more times than the Hornets, and connected on 15 of those attempts from the charity stripe (.714).
Strings and Graves were joined in double figures by senior Cody Demps, who had 14 points, six assists and five rebounds in 38 minutes. Demps had to leave the game for two minutes in the first half after taking an inadvertent elbow to the eye. No other Hornet player had more than five points. The trio of Graves (15.4 ppg), Demps (14.1 ppg) and Strings (13.8) are the Hornets' leading scorers this season.
For Strings, the 6-foot-7 forward who can play on the inside and the perimeter, the 23 points eclipsed his previous career high of 17. He shot 9-of-16 from the field and 3-of-6 from the 3-point line while grabbing four rebounds in 31 minutes. Graves, who averaged just 1.2 points per game last season, has now scored at least 20 points three times this year. He shot 7-of-9 from the field and 2-for-4 from the 3-point line while snatching five rebounds and three steals in 36 minutes.
Junior Nick Hornsby had a team-high eight rebounds and has now snagged at least seven rebounds in five straight, and seven of the eight games this year. Stuteville had four points, four rebounds and four blocked shots in 12 active minutes, Dreon Barlett added five points (and has converted at least one 3-pointer in every game thus far), and true freshman Jeff Wu had five points and three assists without a turnover in 17 minutes.
Incarnate Word had three players finish in double figures, comprised of Walker (18 points in 39 minutes), Johnson (12 points, game-high nine rebounds) and Kyle Hittle (11 points, two steals).
The Hornets will now play five of their next six games on the road, beginning this Saturday at Portland. The game will be a rematch of last year's first-round CIT game that saw the Hornets beat the Pilots in Portland by a 73-66 score. That win was the program's first postseason victory in 53 years.
NOTES -- On Saturday, the Hornets will attempt to become the first Hornet squad to start a year 7-2 since the 1987-88 squad began with a 7-2 record…that 1987-88 squad also was the last Sacramento State men's basketball team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament (Div. II at the time).
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