Hornets meet midway point down in Big Sky women’s basketball standings

Sacramento+State+senior+forward+Gretchen+Harrigan+passes+the+ball+to+a+teammate+in+the+post+against+Idaho+at+the+Nest+on+Feb.+4.++Harrigan+had+a+game-high+23+points%2C+five+rebounds+and+two+assists+in+a+72-58+loss.+%28Photo+by+Matthew+Dyer%29

Matthew Dyer

Sacramento State senior forward Gretchen Harrigan passes the ball to a teammate in the post against Idaho at the Nest on Feb. 4. Harrigan had a game-high 23 points, five rebounds and two assists in a 72-58 loss. (Photo by Matthew Dyer)

Chris Bullock

For the Sacramento State women’s basketball team, the halfway point of Big Sky Conference play will be the difference maker for the season.

While they have lost the last two games, the Hornets (8-13, 4-6 Big Sky) are currently tied for seventh place in a conference that for the first time in years looks very winnable, according to head coach Bunky Harkleroad.

“I think the teams at the the bottom — teams who finished low last year, are significantly better in terms of talent level,” Harkleroad said. “There isn’t a big difference between the team that’s in first place and the team that’s in last. The talent level for the league in evenly distributed.”

Sac State, after finishing seventh last season with a 10-8 conference record, is currently tied for the same spot it was predicted to finish in the preseason Big Sky coaches and media polls. Nonetheless, this season hasn’t been a typical season in the polls.

Northern Colorado, which was picked by both coaches and media to finish ninth, is 10-1 in conference play, while defending Big Sky champion Idaho is currently in fifth with a 7-4 record.

Senior guard Ashlyn Crenshaw, who has played her entire college career in the Big Sky, has noticed a big shift in how the conference is shaping itself.

“The last couple of years there hasn’t been a definite top dog, but there has been some team who was playing at a higher level,” Crenshaw said. “This year, it’s an ‘anybody can win’ type of year.”

Sac State is among those teams looking to take advantage of that.

While the Hornets started off losing the season’s first three conference games, the team has slowly found its way back into the conversation. It has won four of its last seven matches, including a historic win over Montana in Missoula — the first time in team history the team beat Montana in its home court, something that Crenshaw says was a huge morale builder.

Sacramento State senior guard Ashlyn Crenshaw goes for a layup against Geraldine McCorkell of Idaho at the Nest on Feb. 4. (Photo by Matthew Dyer)

“Only a few of us have been here the last couple of years so the freshmen, they didn’t really know the importance of Montana and winning there,” Crenshaw said. “When they saw the seniors and returners hyped and ready to get this win, they fed off it and did what they needed to do to help us get that win.”

Another reason that the team is building momentum at the right time is health. Sac State has benefited  from the return of seniors Brianna Burgos and Gretchen Harrigan (second and fourth last season in scoring for the team, respectively) from injuries suffered at the end of last season, which has given the team a lot more depth and scoring options.

Harrigan, in only eight games, has become the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 15.5 points per game at the forward position.

Freshman guard Tiara Scott, who helped fill the scoring role in their absence, believes that the team is more than ready to make its way to the top of the conference.

“It’s definitely a different game, especially with Gretchen back, that was a large loss we had at the beginning of conference play,” Scott said. “I feel pretty confident that we can get some wins.”

Harkleroad, while expressing confidence in the team, thinks that all the pieces are finally coming together.

“We’ve only played with everyone on our roster two times this season, so it’s a matter of we started out a little behind with some personnel issues; now we’re getting some continuity and some momentum going,” Harkleroad said. “Anytime we can be successful in the league and especially on the road, our team develops more trust in each other.”

With only eight games left to play on the schedule (four of them on the road) — including a matchup at Weber State at 11 a.m. Thursday — before the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Reno, the Hornets still have a chance to finish in the top four of the standings.

The top four teams get a first-round bye, leaving the fifth through 12th-seeded teams to face off before the second round, where Sac State lost to Eastern Washington last season.

“Obviously we want one of those top four seeds,” Harkleroad said. “But at the end of the day, the league is wide open. I think we can win this tournament, but having said that, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”