Big Sky Conference standings

Big Sky Tournament Central

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In a game that featured 13 lead changes, 10 ties and neither team leading by more than five points the entire way, it was Sacramento State converting on big buckets and free throws late to beat North Dakota, 57-53, on Thursday evening at the Sioux Center.

Entering today's game, North Dakota (18-9, 13-4) was all alone in first place in the Big Sky Conference standings, had won six games in a row, was 10-1 at home, and a perfect 7-0 at home against Big Sky foes. In fact, had the Fighting Hawks won tonight's game, they would have clinched the Big Sky's regular season championship and the No. 1 seed into next week's Big Sky Tournament in Reno.

Meanwhile, Sacramento State (12-16, 9-8) continues to play well, having won nine of their last 14 games after beginning the season with an 0-3 record in league. The Hornets sit all alone in seventh place in the Big Sky standings and can finish no worse than the No. 7 seed for the Big Sky Tournament beginning on Tuesday.

The Hornets play their final regular season game on Saturday at Northern Colorado, and, with a win against the Bears and a Montana loss at Idaho State, Sacramento State would be the No. 6 seed. Either way, the Hornets will play Tuesday at the Reno Events Center in the first round of the league's postseason tournament. They will play at 5:30 p.m. if they are the No. 7 seed, or at 8 p.m. if the team is the No. 6 seed.

Sacramento State also avenged a 90-82 overtime home loss to North Dakota on New Year's Eve. Sacramento State is now 4-4 in Big Sky road games, and, with a win on Saturday at Northern Colorado, would finish above .500 on the road in league play for the first time since joining the Big Sky in 1996-97. In addition, Sacramento State will attempt to finish with a Big Sky record above the .500 mark for just the third time (the 2014-15 team went 13-5; the 2004-05 squad went 8-6).

Trailing, 46-42, with 6:29 remaining, Sacramento State finished the final five minutes on a 15-7 run. The game-ending spurt began with 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions by Trevis Jackson and Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa, respectively, with the Izayah 3-ball giving the Hornets a 48-47 advantage with 4:05 remaining. Sacramento State would never trail again, and after a free throw from North Dakota tied things at 48-48, Nick Hornsby made the first of two tough layups in traffic during the next 1:30 of game clock. The second of those layups allowed Sacramento State to take a 52-49 lead at the 2:10 mark.

North Dakota sliced the lead to one point after a Hornet turnover and layup from Corey Baldwin, but Sacramento State's Justin Strings made three free throws over the next two possessions for a 55-51 lead with 10 seconds left. After a driving layup from Quinton Hooker cut the Hornet lead to 55-53 at the five second mark, Jackson was immediately fouled on the inbounds and calmly sank both free throws to ice the game and provide the 57-53 victory.

The 57 points for the Hornets were the team's fourth smallest total of the season and Sacramento State had been 1-12 when scoring under 70 points prior to tonight. The team shot 41% (19-46) from the field, 44% (4-9) from the 3-point line and 75% (15-20) from the free throw line. All four 3-pointers came during the final 10:19 of the contest, including two from Jackson.

Sacramento State held a commanding edge in the rebounding department (40-30) and converted on 12 more free throws than North Dakota, which went just 3-for-10 from the charity stripe. The Fighting Hawks also shot just 40% (23-57) from the field and 19% (4-21) from the 3-point line. That included missing each of their final seven 3-point attempts spanning the last 8:42 of the game.

"Sometimes you have to win ugly, and this was certainly was a low-scoring battle," Sacramento State head coach Brian Katz said. "I was proud of our guys for hanging in there in a tough environment against a very good team. We have such a good group of kids that come to practice every day wanting to get better. They are low maintenance guys that continue to get better every day."

Making the win even more impressive is the Hornets received zero points from the team's second leading scorer Marcus Graves. In fact, Graves, a third year junior guard, had scored in double figures in a career-high 13 straight games.

Three Hornets finished with double-figures points, including Strings and Hornsby who both had 15 points and seven rebounds. Hornsby also added two steals and nine of his points came in the second half, including the Hornets' final two field goals of the game. Senior center Eric Stuteville finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, and is now just 10 points shy of becoming the first center in program history (1948-pres.) to score 1,000 career points.

Jackson scored eight points while also contributing a career-high five rebounds. All eight of Jackson's points came during the game's final 10:19, and it was his two free throws that hit nothing but net at the 5-second mark that finally ended the game. Mauriohooho-Le'afa had five points, four rebounds and two assists and, once again, provided solid defense. The true freshman helped hold North Dakota's leading scorer Quinton Hooker to just 12 points. Hooker entered the game averaging 18.9 points per contest.

Sacramento State used just eight players, as Chibueze Jacobs and Joshua Patton both played seven minutes.

The Fighting Hawks were led by Drick Bernstine's 15 points and game-high eight rebounds while Hooker finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and four steals, and Baldwin had 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting from the field and 2-for-10 from the 3-point line. North Dakota forced Sacramento State into 17 turnovers (one shy of a season high) and outscored the Hornets in points off miscues by a wide margin (19-9).

Sacramento State will play its final regular season game on Saturday at Northern Colorado at 1:05 p.m. PST. The game will be the season finale for the Bears as Northern Colorado is ineligible to compete at next week's Big Sky Tournament.