Photo Courtesy Eric Classen
GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Sacramento State shot a season-best 46.7% from the field and outscored Southern Utah in points in the paint, but the Thunderbirds shot 49.1% and made 20-of-23 free throws in an 86-78 win in the Quarterfinal round of the Big Sky Tournament.
Sacramento State (18-12, 10-10 Big Sky) dared the Thunderbirds to make outside shots and took an early 12-point lead before Southern Utah (22-8, 15-5 Big Sky) knocked down 10 three-pointers and outscored the Hornets by a 20-11 margin at the free throw line to defeat Sacramento State for the third time this season.
"I liked our energy level but we didn't quite have enough in the tank, but give them credit," Sacramento State head coach Bunky Harkleroad said. "The first two games (against Southern Utah) they destroyed us in the paint and ironically we outscored them by a bucket in the paint today. We tried to dare them to shoot and they took what we gave them and made us pay so you have to give them credit. I'm proud of our players for a good effort and we fought to the end."
Southern Utah had scored 68 points in the paint when the teams met in Cedar City in February, so forcing the T-Birds to shoot from the outside was a necessity. The plan worked early as Sacramento State came out firing and took an early 4-0 lead and held a 24-12 lead with seven minutes remaining in the first half.
The Thunderbirds began to hit shots and answered their 12-point deficit with an 18-0 run over the next five minutes to take a 30-24 lead with less than three minutes remaining. SUU led 33-26 with 1:50 left in the half but the Hornets ended the half with a layup and three free throws to trail just 33-31 at the intermission.
A 3-pointer from freshman Gigi Hascheff brought the Hornets even at 38-38 with 16:52 left in the game. Southern Utah went back up by three and never trailed again, with its lead reaching 66-55 with 9:32 left. The Hornets did not go down without a fight, however, and brought their deficit to just four points with 1:06 remaining.
The Hornets had possession trailing 81-77 with less than 40 seconds left but the Thunderbirds came up with a steal and made an ensuing pair of free throws. Sacramento State junior Fantasia Hilliard drew a foul on the next possession and made 1-of-2 free throws to make it a five points game, but with the Hornets needing to foul to stay alive the Thunderbirds made 3-of-4 shots from the line over the final 20 seconds to pull out the win.
Hascheff was brilliant in her first collegiate postseason game, tallying 25 points on 8-of-15 shooting and hitting five threes, with 22 of her 25 points coming in the second half. Hilliard posted her fifth double-double of the year with 15 points and 10 assists and redshirt freshman Margaret Huntington shot 5-of-6 and scored 11 points.
For just the second time this season the Hornets committed more turnovers than their opponent and subsequently were outscored 21-11 in points off turnovers as well as 13-5 in second chance points. Desiree Jackson scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting off the bench and all-Big Sky first team selection Hailey Mandelko scored 20 points, all in the second half after playing just six minutes in the first half with foul trouble.
Hornet senior Alle Moreno had seven points, three rebounds, and three assists and senior Sadie Clements totaled five points and two rebounds as their collegiate careers come to a close. Moreno is now tied for second in Big Sky history with 238 career 3-pointers made after knocking down one long ball on Thursday.
"It's great to see what I'm leaving this program to with a great coach and great young players," said Moreno, one of just 12 players in program history to score 1,000 career points. "It's unfortunate that it ended the way it did but Southern Utah is a great team and they could easily win this whole thing. From my freshman year till now it's a 14-game difference going from four wins to 18 this year and 19 last year. I couldn't ask for a better experience and it's going to be one that I miss and I can't wait to see what this team does next year."
The Hornets broke program records this year with an 11-1 start to the season and a nine-game winning streak. The team broke the NCAA single season records in 3-pointers made and attempted and will likely finish the season leading the NCAA in 3-pointers made per game and steals per game.
For Harkleroad, who took over at Sacramento State and moved from West Virginia less than a month before the start of the season, and the team, winning 18 games after starting the season with such adversity and losing two key players during the year is an accomplishment to admire.
"I'll never forget this year; this has been one of the best years of my life," Harkleroad said. "Every day I wake up and am thankful for the phone call I got from Sacramento State in the fall. I'm thankful for this group of young people we inherited and the staff and support we have had from our school. It's been an amazing group of you people to be around."