Men’s basketball earns top record in Big Sky with 90-77 victory over Eastern Washington

Mike McGough

Sacramento State’s men’s basketball team took care of business Saturday night with a 90-77 victory over Eastern Washington that gave the Hornets a conference-leading 5-1 record in the Big Sky.

With the win, the Hornets improved to a record of 11-6 overall and 8-1 at home this season.

Sac State coach Brian Katz said his team was tested by an unexpected game plan by Eastern Washington, particularly in the first half.

“It wasn’t quite what we thought,” Katz said. “They don’t play a lot of zone [defense]. They started zone, they played some zone. They made adjustments. So it wasn’t quite what we thought. They adjusted, and I thought they had an excellent game plan and put us on our heels a bit in the first half.”

The game was knotted up at 41 at halftime. The Hornets managed to overcome their opponent’s defense after that, outscoring Eastern Washington 49-36 in the second half.

For Sac State, the 5-1 record marks the best six-game start to league play for the Hornets since they joined the Big Sky Conference in the 1996-97 season. The game marked a battle for first place in which Sac State handed the Eastern Washington Eagles (4-1) their first conference loss of the season.

As they did two nights prior against the Idaho Vandals, guards Cody Demps and Mikh McKinney were the difference makers in Sac State’s victory.

This time, it was Demps that had a career night. The junior scored a career-high 22 points on six-of-10 shooting from the floor. Demps made all 10 of his free throw attempts, had five assists and hauled in four rebounds in 33 minutes played.

“I think we set the tone in practice, which helped carry over to the game,” Demps said. “It was very big. We try to take one game at a time, but we definitely saw Eastern Washington coming up and knew it was going to be a tough game.”

Katz spoke fondly of Demps’ ability to come through when Sac State’s top two scorers—McKinney and fellow guard Dylan Garrity—are well-covered by the opposing defense.

“He has such a high ceiling for improvement,” Katz said. “We felt that in high school, and we felt it after his freshman year. We just think there’s a lot more there. He’s a team-first guy, and sometimes he’s not quite assertive enough. We feel like he needs to be a little more assertive, and he was [tonight].”

McKinney followed up Thursday night’s 32-point scoring effort with a double-double. The senior scored 14 points, making six of 13 field goal attempts, and tallied 12 assists. He also stole the ball six times in 39 minutes spent on the floor.

“I think everybody just fought hard,” McKinney said. “We executed well on offense, we shared the ball and we got stops when we needed them. So that was a big game.”

Guard Dreon Barlett also helped his team off the bench. Barlett scored 12 points on four 3-pointers without a miss.

The Hornets made 31 of 49 (63.3 percent) field goal attempts in Saturday night’s high-scoring effort while holding Eastern Washington to shoot 27 of 58 (46.6 percent) from the floor. The Eagles were a perfect 14-for-14 at the free-throw line.

Sac State had 25 assists against 11 turnovers as a team. Eastern Washington had only 10 assists and committed 14 turnovers.

After the Hornets’ previous two victories came down to the games’ final possessions, Saturday night’s win included less drama for Sac State. The Hornets outscored the Eagles by 13 in the second half and shot 16-of-22 (72.7 percent) from the field in the process.

The game stayed competitive until the final two minutes. With 1:29 remaining, a layup made by Demps put the Hornets’ lead at 83-73 and forced the Eagles to play the foul game.

Sac State never trailed by more than four points Saturday night, and held a lead for the final 17:47 of the game.

Eastern Washington guard Tyler Harvey scored 21 points. The Eagles were without junior forward Venky Jois, who entered Saturday night averaging 18 points per game this season—the second highest mark on his team.

The win for Sac State’s men’s team came just hours after the women’s team earned a road victory against Eastern Washington by a final score of 73-67 to improve to a 5-1 conference record. With their respective Saturday victories, the Hornets now sit atop the Big Sky Conference standings in both men’s and women’s basketball.

Katz and his players will head out on the road for their next two games, in which they hope to defend their position at the top of the conference.

With his team in first place, Katz knows that there is no room for complacency.

“No matter what happens, if our guys play like underdogs, they’re going to have a great chance,” Katz said.

Sac State’s next game will be at 6:05 p.m. Thursday at Idaho State.