CEDAR CITY, Utah — Playing without the services of four guards because of injury, Sacramento State held a 66-63 lead with under four minutes to play, but Southern Utah closed the final 3:48 on a 14-8 run to eventually defeat the Hornets, 77-74, at the America First Event Center.
Sacramento State was playing without four guards that were expected to be huge parts of the team's rotation this year. The most recent injured player is Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa who missed his first game of the season today with a back injury. He was averaging 32.5 minutes per game and had started 25 straight games prior to today. The Hornets have already lost guards Marcus Graves (back), Jiday Ugbaja (leg) and Jeff Wu (leg) for the season. Graves has missed the entire year, Ugbaja has missed all but six games and Wu has now missed four straight games.
The Hornets continue to struggle in close contests as the team is now 2-9 in games decided by six points or less. In fact, four of the team's last five losses have come by five points or fewer, with one of those coming in overtime. Sacramento State has not won a close game since an 80-75 victory in the Big Sky opener at home against Portland State on Dec. 30.
The loss was the eighth in a row for Sacramento State (6-23, 3-13), the program's longest losing streak since dropping nine straight during the 2011-12 season. The Hornets also fell to 1-13 on the road, and have yet to win a game during the month of February. Southern Utah snapped a three-game losing streak while improving to 11-16 overall and 5-11 in the Big Sky Conference.
Sacramento State was playing its final regular season road game of the season, as the Hornets will play twice at home next week in preparation for the Big Sky Tournament which takes place March 6-10 in Reno. The Hornets will play in the first round of the tournament on Tuesday, March 6, against an opponent and time still to be determined.
Despite the injury depleted back court, the Hornets, who were playing with nine healthy bodies, erased a 13-point deficit by going on a 24-8 run spanning eight minutes of game clock in the second half. By the time a Joshua Patton layup capped the run, Sacramento State had its largest lead of the second half at 66-63 with 4:05 left.
However, Southern Utah would score on seven of its last 10 possessions to close on a 14-8 run. Brandon Better scored seven of his game-high 20 points during the run, which included four free throws and a big 3-pointer at the 1:52 mark. Sacramento State's Jordan Tolbert buried a pair of 3-pointers during the final 1:28 with the last drawing the Hornets within one point (75-74) with nine seconds left. The Hornets immediately fouled Better on the inbounds pass, and he sank two free throws for a 77-74 Thunderbird lead at the eight second mark. Sacramento State dribbled the length of the floor, and set up a play for Strings who missed a contested, off balance 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
Southern Utah shot 46% (25-55) from the field, and went to the free throw line 11 more times than Sacramento State, converting its freebies at a 20-for-30 (67%) clip. Sacramento State was whistled for a massive 24 fouls, including a game-changing foul call on Joshua Patton with 55 seconds left and the game tied. That foul not only gave Southern Utah two free throws, but Patton, the team's top interior player, also fouled out of the game. Patton was a +15 in plus/minus as well, easily the best among any Hornet in today's game.
Sacramento State shot 40% (26-65) from the field, 37% (7-19) from the 3-point line and 79% (15-19) from the free throw line. However, one of those free throw misses was the front end of a 1-and-1 situation with 3:34 remaining and the Hornets leading by two points. The Hornets forced 19 Thunderbird turnovers, but managed just 13 points off those miscues. Sacramento State received just six points off its bench as four of the five starters scored at least 12 points.
Because of all the injuries, Sacramento State head coach Brian Katz used the following lineup for the first time all season: Tolbert and Kevin Hicks in the back court, Bryce Fowler as a swingman, and Strings and Patton at forward. Strings finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and two steals, and Tolbert had 16 points and a season-best five steals. Eleven of those points came in the second half for Tolbert.
Fowler, a true freshman, had a season-high 14 points to go with six rebounds, six assists and a pair of steals. Patton had 12 points (8-for-8 from the free throw line) and six rebounds before fouling out with 55 seconds left. Hicks added nine points and James Herrick had four points. Both Tolbert and Hicks were 3-for-7 from the 3-point line.
For Southern Utah, Better's 20 points came on a proficient 5-for-9 from the field, 3-of-6 from the 3-point line and 7-for-8 from the free throw line. He scored 20 points in just 26 minutes off the bench. Dwayne Morgan had 13 points and seven rebounds, and Jamal Aytes had 13 points. Christian Musoko had 10 points and five rebounds off the bench as the Thunderbird bench outscored the Hornet bench by a 35-6 margin.
Sacramento State's final two home games will come next week on Thursday vs. North Dakota and Saturday vs. Northern Colorado. Both games will tip at 7:05 p.m. Hornet seniors Strings, Ugbaja and Herrick will be honored prior to Saturday's game for their contributions to the program.