RENO, Nev. -- Sophomore Justin Strings scored a game-high 25 points, and the Hornets held a lead the final 21:28 of the contest on the way to a 79-75 victory over Montana State in the first round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament on Tuesday evening at the Reno Events Center.
With the victory, the Hornets (14-16), who are the No. 10 seed in the tournament, advance to the quarterfinal round to face No. 2 Montana (19-10) on Thursday at 5:35 p.m. Tonight marked the first time in school history that Sacramento State has won a Big Sky Tournament game in back-to-back seasons.
In a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds, Sacramento State had to rely on free throw shooting during the final stages of the second half. In fact, the Hornets went 15-of-22 from the line over the final 7:06 of the contest. That included 7-for-12 over the final 1:25, and 3-of-4 during the last 12 seconds. The game was not decided until junior Nick Hornsby buried two free throws with 3.8 seconds remaining that gave the Hornets a 79-75 advantage and the all-important two-possession lead.
Sacramento State avenged two regular season losses to Montana State earlier this year. However, the Bobcats (14-17), who were the No. 7 seed, didn't face a Hornet team with Cody Demps as the team co-captain and fourth-year senior missed both games with injury. Demps had a big impact tonight, finishing with 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 34 minutes of play.
He was one of three Hornets in double figures, a list which includes Strings, who was just named honorable mention all-Big Sky yesterday. The sophomore forward shot 8-of-16 from the field, 4-for-6 from the 3-point line and 5-of-7 from the free throw line. He hit perhaps the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer with 1:54 remaining that gave Sacramento State a 72-66 lead. He also buried two free throws with 30 seconds left that gave the Hornets a 76-68 lead.
Dreon Barlett, a fourth-year senior, finished with 13 points on 3-of-4 shooting from distance and 4-for-4 from the free throw line. Ten of his points came in the second half when he buried a pair of 3-pointers and went 4-for-4 from the charity stripe during the final 7:06.
What appeared like a comfortable eight-point lead with 30 seconds remaining turned out to be a nail biter as Montana State's Sarp Gobeloglu hit a pair of deep 3-pointers during the final 23 seconds. In fact, his second 3-ball got Montana State within, 77-75, with seven seconds left. That's when Hornsby was fouled with 3.8 seconds remaining and buried the two biggest free throws of his career to give the Hornets a four-point lead. Montana State attempted a deep pass downcourt, but the ball was batted away and time eventually expired.
Sacramento State, which struggled on the glass in both regular season meetings with the Bobcats, matched Montana State in the rebounding department tonight, 38-38. That included pulling 11 offensive boards resulting in a 15-9 advantage in second chance points. The Hornets shot .442 (23-of-52) from the field and made five less field goals than Montana State, but Sacramento State converted on three more 3-pointers (9-of-19, .474) and 11 more free throws (24-of-35, .686). That included making 21 free throws in the second half.
Montana State shot .424 (28-of-66) from the field, but just 6-for-28 (.214) from the 3-point line and 13-for-20 (.650) from the free throw line. The Bobcats had just seven turnovers, but struggled from the perimeter while outscoring Sacramento State in the paint by a wide margin (34-20).
Tonight felt like a home game at times as a large contingent of Sacramento State fans made the trip to Reno. A total of 1,723 fans were in attendance and a good portion of those fans were loud in the Hornets' favor from the opening tip.
"Our whole team had a lot of energy tonight, and that really carried us," Strings said. "Our seniors (Demps and Barlett) led the way, the guys on the bench were active, and our crowd played a big role."
"I've said all along that this is the way I've expected our team to play this year," Sacramento State head coach Brian Katz said. "We had some adversity with the injuries, and its taken a little time for it to come together. But we are starting to see the team play the way they are capable."
For the Hornets, Hornsby finished with eight points, six rebounds and two assists, and guard Marcus Graves had nine points, seven rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers in 34 minutes. Jeff Wu added four points in 12 minutes and Jiday Ugbaja had three points and three rebounds. Ugbaja hit a 3-pointer at the 5:09 mark of the first half that put an end to an 8-0 Montana State run.
For the Bobcats, Tayler Hall had a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds, Gobeloglu had 16 points and six rebounds on 4-of-5 shooting from the arc, Marcus Colbert had 16 points and five assists, and Quinton Everett had 11 points, four rebounds and three steals.
Thursday's quarterfinal round game against Montana will mark the second time the two teams have faced each other in the Big Sky Tournament. The other was an 88-75 Sacramento State win in Missoula during the 2003 Big Sky Tourney quarterfinals.
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