I must confess that I never attended a school below the Red Line (choosing to go to an overrated Pac-12 school instead), so I long ago adopted my father's alma mater, the University of Montana, as my below-the-line team. With nearby Sacramento State also in the Big Sky conference, he and I always make an effort to get down to Sacramento each year to see the Grizzlies on what is usually their lone visit to Northern California. So when this year's schedules came out, I immediately noticed Montana's appearance in Sacramento also coincided with my Dad's 81st birthday, so this game became the first added to my "I Will" list for the season.
To add to the fun, the day also turned out to be the third annual #ALLCAPSDAY, so I planned to live-tweet the game (in ALL CAPS, of course) for the first time. Late in the afternoon I headed down Highway 50 to pick up Dad and meet up with my brother Ken (a Sac State graduate) and his two sons, and together three generations of hoops fans headed for the Sac State campus.
One of the first things you notice about Sacramento State basketball (as Kevin Danna noted in an earlier report) is that the University doesn't seem terribly interested in telling you exactly where the Hornets' Nest (as Sac State's home is called) is located. Even the school's official campus map makes no mention of basketball or the Nest, as if the gymnasium were more of an underground club known only to a select few. Fortunately we knew the way from many past visits, but if you were to come to Sac State for the first time you would need to carefully read the directions on the Hornet Sports web site to learn that the Nest is actually inside a building named Yosemite Hall, which if you didn't know better could just as easily be a dormitory or science building.
We got to the parking lot about ten minutes before tipoff, which was easily enough time to park, make the short walk to Yosemite Hall, and purchase tickets. The Hornets' Nest is one of the smaller facilities in Division I, seating a total of 1,200, yet it has been half-empty for most home games this season. On this night there was a somewhat larger crowd than usual (announced at 818) but we were still able to secure five seats in the first row behind the scorer's table thanks to a friendly usher who allowed us to sit outside the designated General Admission area so my Dad didn't have to climb up the rows of bleachers.
The Nest has been the home of Sac State basketball since the mid-1950s and, as others have noted, it is much more reminiscent of a mid-sized high school gym than a Division I basketball venue. Aside from the large banner on one end bearing the school's name the only other indicator that it is a college facility is the series of banners behind both sets of bleachers listing all the other member schools of the Big Sky (in ALL CAPS, of course), including North Dakota and Southern Utah who will begin conference play next season. A set of 13 banners opposite the large Sac State banner does not, regrettably, commemorate any championship seasons, but instead the program's current sponsors.
The game matched up two teams with nearly opposite basketball histories. While Sac State always finds itself at or near the bottom of the Big Sky standings, Montana has been one of the conference's more successful programs for the past 30 years. Over that time the Grizzlies have made seven NCAA Tournament appearances (including a first-round win as a 12 seed in 2006) and have posted a winning record in all but five of those seasons. Montana has also served as a proving ground for a number of successful head coaches, including Mike Montgomery (Stanford/California), Stew Morrill (Utah State), and Blaine Taylor (Old Dominion). The Grizzlies came into this game tied with Weber State for first place in the conference with a record of 11-1 and riding a seven-game winning streak, while the Hornets arrived in eighth place with a record of 4-8 but also a four-game winning streak of their own.
Sacramento State was founded in 1947 and spent its first 43 years in the NCAA's lower divisions. The high point of the early years was an appearance in the College Division national championship game in 1962, a double-overtime loss to Mount St. Mary's. In the late 1980s, the Hornets enjoyed another successful period as Joe Anders' squad employed a fast-paced style built around the three-point shot. In the 1987-88 season the Hornets, led by Alex Williams and Robert "Money Man" Martin, led the nation in three-pointers and finished seventh in scoring with 93.1 points per game. That was the last Sac State team to earn a chance to play for a national championship, gaining a bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament, where they lost a close first-round game to Cal State Bakersfield.
Hoping to bolster its athletic profile, Sacramento State moved up to Division I in 1991. Playing their first three seasons as an independent, the Hornets won a total of only eight games and endured a 32-game losing streak between 1993 and 1994 (a mark that would unfortunately be exceeded by a 34-game streak in 1997-99). That was followed with two marginally better seasons in the short-lived American West Conference (the Great West of its day). In 1996, Sac State got a chance to compete for an automatic bid when it was accepted by the Big Sky conference, but so far a tournament appearance has remained far out of reach. In 15 seasons the Hornets have qualified for the Big Sky tournament only four times (only the top six teams are invited to the conference tournament), and they have finished in last place nine times, including the past four seasons.
Montana jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead after two possessions, prompting Sac State coach Brian Katz to call a quick timeout just 1:08 into the game. The strategy worked, as the Hornets turned up their defensive intensity coming out of the timeout and quickly went on a 13-2 run to take a six-point lead with 16:30 left in the half. Sac State eventually extended the lead to as many as nine points, leading 20-11 with about six minutes remaining in the half, as Montana struggled to get a good shot on offense.
Unfortunately the defensive pressure on both sides led to an inordinate number of foul calls, to the point that both teams were in the double bonus with more than four minutes left in the half. Montana's leading scorer, guard Will Cherry (coming off a 30-point effort two nights earlier), spent most of the first half on the bench with two early fouls and zero points scored. As the half drew to a close Montana took advantage of their free throw opportunities to slowly cut into the lead, but still went into the locker room trailing 30-25. The unofficial tempo-free halftime stats (brought to you by BLAPP) told the story: 0.86 points per possession for Sac State and an even worse 0.69 for Montana.
The game turned quickly in the early going of the second half, as Montana rode a 16-2 run to eventually outscore the Hornets 24-7 during the first ten minutes of the half. Montana's defense disrupted the Hornets, Cherry and senior forwards Derek Selvig and Art Steward took care of most of the scoring, and the foul calls continued against Sac State. In Kevin's December recap of the North Dakota game he describes a situation that could just as easily apply to the early second half against Montana:
"North Dakota pulled even, and in the eyes of the Hornets' faithful, got some favorable calls. Sac State coach Brian Katz basically begged the officials to T him up, but his plea for two North Dakota free throws and possession of the basketball went unanswered by the zebras."
The only difference this time, aside from the opponent, was in this case the officials obliged, calling a technical on Katz at the end of the run, leaving Montana with its largest lead of the game at 49-37. At the time that looked to be enough for the Grizzlies to safely salt away the victory, but the Hornets had another run left in them as they held Montana scoreless over the next five-plus minutes to cut the lead to five at 49-44. On Montana's next possession, the crowd exploded (much louder than you would think 800 people could be) when a Selvig midrange attempt was emphatically swatted out of bounds by Hornet center Konner Veteto. Unfortunately for the Hornets and their fans, Veteto made the mistake of taunting Selvig immediately afterwards and was called for a technical, effectively ending the game. Cherry made the two resulting free throws and then hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, and the game was never in doubt after that. After the Hornets' Heath Hoffman hit a three at the buzzer, Montana had won by a final score of 67-58.
AS I MENTIONED BEFORE, THIS WAS ALSO THE THIRD ANNUAL #ALLCAPSDAY. DURING THE GAME I MANAGED TO GET A FEW TWEETS OUT (SOMETIMES FORGETTING THE #ALLCAPSDAY HASHTAG), BUT I REALIZED SOMETHING THAT I'M SURE KYLE AND OTHERS ALREADY KNEW: IT'S VERY DIFFICULT TO LIVE-TWEET A GAME THAT'S BEING PLAYED RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU AND STILL SEE EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS ON THE COURT. I HONESTLY DON'T KNOW HOW KYLE DID IT THESE PAST FEW YEARS.
On the way out, Dad and I discussed how the game was not an artistic triumph by any means (the two teams combined for 44 fouls, 33 turnovers, and 35.6 percent shooting), but still a good hard-fought victory for the Griz on the road in a game they needed to win. My brother and nephews were not as happy, of course, but in the end we all enjoyed the chance to go to a game together. As for myself, I was happy to spend some time with the man who, in addition to countless other things, taught me a love of sports at an early age. Ultimately for me, that was the most IMPORTANT part of the night.
MONTANA 67, at SACRAMENTO STATE 58 02/11/2012
MONTANA 19-6 (12-1) -- D. Selvig 3-6 7-8 14; A. Steward 6-7 4-6 16; K. Jamar 2-8 0-2 5; W. Cherry 2-8 12-15 17; M. Ward 3-6 2-2 8; S. Stockton 0-1 0-0 0; K. Henderson 1-3 0-0 2; J. Gregory 1-2 2-2 5; J. Wood 0-2 0-0 0; M. Weisner 0-2 0-0 0; K. DeShields 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 18-46 27-35 67. SACRAMENTO STATE 9-15 (4-9) -- J. Eberhard 3-7 2-2 11; D. Garrity 2-5 3-5 9; J. Carbajal 5-12 0-3 11; J. Estrada 2-9 0-0 6; H. Hoffman 3-8 0-0 7; J. Dickson 1-7 2-2 4; K. Veteto 2-6 0-0 4; J. McCarver 1-2 2-3 4; J. Demalleville 0-2 2-2 2. Totals 19-58 11-17 58.
Three-point goals: UMT 4-15 (J. Wood 0-2; D. Selvig 1-1; S. Stockton 0-1; W. Cherry 1-3; K. Jamar 1-3; M. Weisner 0-2; K. Henderson 0-1; J. Gregory 1-1; K. DeShields 0-1), SAC 9-27 (J. Eberhard 3-5; J. Carbajal 1-5; H. Hoffman 1-4; J. Estrada 2-9; D. Garrity 2-3; J. Demalleville 0-1); Rebounds: UMT 36 (D. Selvig 14), SAC 33 (H. Hoffman 7); Assists: UMT 13 (D. Selvig 4), SAC 13 (D. Garrity 7); Total Fouls -- UMT 17, SAC 27; Fouled Out: UMT-None; SAC-None.