Women’s basketball leads Big Sky with best-ever start to conference season


Senior guard, Takara Burse powers past Weber State guard Brianna Averette at the Hornets’ Nest on Saturday Jan. 24, 2015. The Hornets trampled Weber State 108-65.

Mike McGough

Sacramento State’s women’s basketball team is off to its best conference start in program history with a 7-1 record in the Big Sky Conference.

After dropping nine of 11 preconference games and losing their conference opener at Northern Arizona, the Hornets have since mounted a seven-game win streak, taking control of first place in the Big Sky in the process.

Coach Bunky Harkleroad commented on the success his team has found early in the conference season.

“We’re playing really hard right now, and I think our pre-conference schedule has a lot to do with that,” Harkleroad said. “We played a very, very tough pre-conference schedule. We’ve been doing a better job guarding people, and we’ve been doing a better job with our overall effort and focus on the little things.”

Harkleroad is in his second season as head coach at Sac State. His team runs a version of the Grinnell System, an up-tempo strategy in which the players attempt as many shots as possible, shoot a high percentage of 3-pointers and play aggressive full-court press the entirety of each game.

This style of basketball has the Hornets leading the Big Sky in points per game at 85.6—more than 10 points per game higher than North Dakota, the next highest team, at 75.3 points per game. Sac State also tops the Big Sky with 234 made 3-pointers so far this season. The 11 other Big Sky Conference teams have made an average of about 90.

On the flip side, the team’s fast-paced offensive strategy gives opponents frequent uncontested layup opportunities at the other end of the court, which explains Sac State’s conference-worst field goal defense of 51.9 percent.

A season ago, this system allowed Harkleroad’s squad to break the NCAA single-season record for both made (373) and attempted (1171) 3-pointers. The 2013-14 Hornets finished 18-12 overall and 10-10 in conference.

This season, the team’s 16-woman roster contains nine Hornets who are new to the team.

“This team is still defining itself,” Harkleroad said. “It’s hard for me to really say what we are and who we are just yet. We have shown that we can compete at a high level, and we’ve played less than desirable at times. But I think they’re a team that is showing great improvement.”

Sophomore guard Brianna Burgos described the team as an energetic one.

“I feel like we run harder than anybody, and we utilize all our players,” Burgos said. “Everybody contributes on this team.”

In the team’s most recent victory, the Hornets blew out the Weber State Wildcats by a final of 108-65.

The Hornets took control of first place on Jan. 17 at Eastern Washington. Facing a 67-65 deficit in the final minute, Sac State mounted an 8-0 run to win the game 73-67 and take over the top spot in the Big Sky.

“We’ve had a number of players step up and play big games,” Harkleroad said. “Our seniors have all had some really good moments [and] our new players have all had some really good moments.”

Sac State’s three seniors on the roster have played a big part in the Hornets’ 7-1 start to the conference season.

Point guard Fantasia Hilliard has had a major impact on her team’s success. The senior is second among all Big Sky players in assists, averaging 4.8 per game. She is also 11th in the conference in scoring with an average of 13.3 points per game.

Senior guard Takara Burse—referred to as “TK” by her teammates and coaches—has also been a key factor in the Hornets’ success, contributing an average of 10.4 points per game in Big Sky play.

“It’s a great feeling,” Burse said, referring to her team’s position at the top of the Big Sky. “[It’s] something I haven’t experienced here at Sac State in my four years, so it feels good.”

Burse scored a season-high 20 points in her team’s Jan. 17 road victory over Eastern Washington, making eight of 15 field goal attempts in the process. Hilliard and Burse combined for 34 points in the win.

Harkleroad gave praise to the effort put in by Burse, who recently moved into a new role.

“TK has played, we’ve moved her to point guard for the last five games and that’s been a tremendous shot in the arm,” Harkleroad said following the win at Eastern Washington. “She’s really doing a great job there.”

Burse attributed the 7-1 conference start to her team’s ability to persevere through a tough pre-conference schedule.

“I think we never gave up,” Burse said. “If you look at our schedule, you can see a lot of L’s on there. Most teams right now would have hung their head or would have quit. The squad that we are, we kept fighting. We knew that our breaking day was coming.”

Burgos said that success moving forward will require that the Hornets not attempt to coast through the rest of the season.

“It’s easy to stay complacent,” Burgos said. “We just need to keep a chip on our shoulder.”

Despite Sac State’s first place status, Harkleroad feels that his team is one that is still discovering itself.

“This team is still bonding,” Harkleroad said. “They’re still learning each other. Everybody is trying to get a little better at their roles. We’ve seen what we have to do to win, so I think we’ll be judged on how the rest of it plays out.”