Around the Big Sky: League play heating up
The Big Sky could dub the games played on Jan. 14 as "Suspenseful Saturday" because of the unusual comebacks in league games, none of them wilder than Idaho State's 68-67 win at Sacramento State.
Idaho State trailed by 22 points with 11:21 remaining in the game -- and by 10 with 1:58 left -- but still managed the improbable comeback victory. Even more miraculous, senior guard Kevin McGowen made a four-point play (fouled when making a three-pointer) with eight seconds left to give the Bengals the 68-67 win at the Hornets' Nest.
It was one of three games in the Big Sky on Jan. 14 in which big leads dwindled dramatically in the second half.
Weber State led Montana 61-38 with 14:53 left in the game, but the Grizzlies made things interesting with a 19-4 run before the Wildcats prevailed 80-64. Northern Arizona trailed by 14 with 11:02 left in the game and rallied before losing 74-72 at home against Montana State.
Idaho State used a 36-13 run over the final 10:02 to steal its win against Sacramento State. The Hornets committed 21 turnovers, including 12 miscues during the game's final 11 minutes. Conversely, Idaho State committed just six turnovers the entire game and outscored the Hornets in points off turnovers by a 25-6 margin.
Idaho State began to use a pressure defense midway through the second half that the Hornets could not handle. Sacramento State would score just five points during the final 4:37, which included four turnovers and the team going 3-for-6 from the free-throw line.
Montana's Derek Selvig ignited a 19-4 run against Weber State that cut the lead to 65-57 with 8:16 to play. Scott Bamforth nailed a three-pointer to restore the double-digit lead at 68-57 with 7:54 to play and the Grizzlies could get no closer.
"They became the aggressor and we got back on our heels," Weber State coach Randy Rahe said. "They're too good a team not to do that."
Northern Arizona's full-court press in the second half finally got to Montana State, eliminating a 14-point deficit to tie the game at 68 with 4:29 left. NAU went on a 21-7 over the stretch. The game remained close afterward and the Lumberjacks had a chance to win but Stallon Saldivar's three-pointer at the buzzer was off the mark.
"I have great respect for our kids because they took that 14-point deficit and turned it into a great effort in the second half," said Interim Head Coach Dave Brown. "Hopefully that will spin into some positive things for them in the future."
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Northern Colorado at Montana, Jan. 19 -- Northern Colorado is riding the high of a 71-70 win over Eastern Washington, while Montana is coming off a humbling 80-64 loss to Weber State. The Bears (3-2 in the Big Sky entering the week) need a victory to keep pace with Montana (4-1) and Weber State (6-0) and to remain in the upper-division of the conference. Northern Colorado has won two of its last three games after a 1-4 stretch entering conference play. Both teams feature leading scorers who also lead their team in assists -- Northern Colorado's Paul Garnica (42 assists and 11.2 points per game) and Montana's Will Cherry (54 assists and 14.5 points a game).
AROUND THE LEAGUE
--Eastern Washington split on the road last weekend, beating Sacramento State and then losing to Northern Colorado. That means the Eagles still have not had back-to-back victories in league play on the road since the 2003-04 season. That year, EWU swept the Montana schools on Feb. 5 (defeated Montana State 64-61) and Feb. 7 (defeated Montana 71-52). Earlier this season, Eastern had a chance to snap that skid, but lost at Montana 79-71.
--Eastern Washington lost at Northern Colorado 71-70 on Jan. 14 thanks to a Chris Webber moment by standout Colin Chiverton. After making the go-ahead basket with 18 seconds to play, six ticks of the clock later while battling for a loose ball on the floor, Chiverton called a timeout the Eagles didn't have, resulting in a technical foul. Northern Colorado's Tate Unruh made two free throws with 12 seconds to play, then EWU was unable to get a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds. The loss came after Eastern led for more than 16 minutes of the second half.
"To Chiverton's credit, he made a big shot," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "If he doesn't make it, the timeout he called that we didn't have wouldn't have mattered. He was on the floor trying to get a loose ball (when the timeout was called). But it was a hard way to lose a ballgame."
--True freshman Parker Kelly, a 2011 graduate of Gonzaga Prep High School in Spokane, Wash., scored a career-high 12 points at Northern Colorado. Kelly, who made 3-of-7 shots -- including 3-of-4 3-pointers -- also scored 12 versus Linfield earlier this season, but his previous high versus a NCAA Division I opponent was five.
--After having not won this season when it trailed at halftime, Eastern Washington's victory over Sac State on Jan. 12 was EWU's second-straight comeback victory after trailing at intermission. It also was the first time this season that any Eastern Washington game has been decided by six points or less.
--One Internet site -- BigSkyBasketball.com -- mentions that Madison (Idaho) High School coach Bill Hawkins may be a head coaching candidate for Idaho State next season. "Or, at the very least, he wants to be a coaching candidate for them," the site reports. Hawkins has coached Madison to five state titles in 24 years as coach there. It is rumored that if Hawkins is hired, some affluent donors will pump money into the Idaho State program.
--Idaho State trailed by 22 points with 11:21 remaining in the game -- and by 10 with 1:58 left -- at Sacramento State but still managed the improbable comeback victory. Even more miraculous, Kevin McGowen made a four-point play (fouled when making a three-pointer) with eight seconds left to give the Bengals the 68-67 win at the Hornets' Nest.
--Idaho State had a season-low six turnovers compared to 21 by Sacramento State.
--Wyoming swept two games from Idaho State this season, winning by a combined total of 153-105. The Bengals are 2-10 out of conference, losing by an average of 9.3 points in those games.
--Montana tried to put its loss at Weber State 80-64 on Jan. 14 in perspective. It was a battle of unbeaten teams in the Big Sky. "This is what, five games out of 16?" junior guard Will Cherry said. "We'll see them again. We need to learn from our mistakes in this game and we'll see them again in the last game of the season and we'll owe them a little something. This was the first of a possible three matchups. We're going to see them again and we can possibly see them in the championship, which I'd like to think we will."
--Montana allowed 48.5 points in its previous two games, victories at Idaho State and Northern Arizona. But the Grizzlies allowed 49 points in the first half to Weber State in an 80-64 loss on Jan. 14. "They were making shots when we broke down, that's all it was," Montana junior point guard Will Cherry said. "We broke down and they made us pay for every breakdown we had. They're good shooters and they were knocking them down. They were the aggressors at the start of the game."
--Cherry had one steal to tie Weber State's Eddie Gill (1998-2000) for 12th place on the league's career list with 178.
--Grizzlies junior center Mathias Ward snared a career-high 12 rebounds, but Weber State won the overall rebounding battle 34-32.
--Jamie Stewart, a 6-foot-4 junior guard from Detroit, Mich., "is no longer a member of the team," according to Montana State coach Brad Huse. Stewart, academically ineligible for this semester, played in 12 games this season, with seven starts, and averaged 9.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and one steal. He played nine minutes in the Big Sky Conference opener against Eastern Washington Dec. 28 in Bozeman (an 82-66 MSU loss), Stewart's lowest amount of court time all season. The junior has not played in a game or been a part of practice since. He scored a career-high 21 points in a 77-70 road win at San Jose State during MSU's non-conference schedule
Stewart left open the possibility of returning to Montana State next season with his comments to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. "I made some poor decisions, I made some poor choices over the year and I'm reaping the consequences right now," Stewart told the newspaper. "I wish my team success in the future. They're my brothers and I wish them well. I look forward to spring practice."
--Montana State's 72-70 win at Northern Arizona on Jan. 14 was its first win in Flagstaff since 2002.
--Montana State averaged 12.1 turnovers through its first 10 games, 32nd in Division I, but averaged 19.2 in the last six through Jan. 14. Montana State committed at least 14 turnovers in five of its last six games entering the week, and was averaging 18 turnovers per Big Sky contest this season.
--Junior forward Xavier Blount broke out of a funk with 21 points against Northern Arizona. He scored 24 points in an 86-73 win at Portland State but in the other five immediate games (two since, three before) he tallied only 25 points combined before playing the Lumberjacks.
--Northern Arizona freshman guard James Douglas, a candidate for Big Sky freshman of the year, continues to lead the Lumberjacks in scoring heading into this week with 12.8 points per game. NAU interim coach Dave Brown tried to shake things up in the midst of a four-game losing streak before the Jan. 14 game at home against Montana State. He did not start Douglas, who played only 27 minutes but led the Lumberjacks with 13 points.
--Northern Arizona, which won its first two games under interim head coach Brown (including a 69-68 win at Arizona State), lost six of its last seven games through Jan. 14, including a string of five straight. NAU previously lost five in a row in 2001-02 and had not lost five in a row in league play since 1995-96.
"I don't have an answer (for our lack of success)," senior Durrell Norman said. "It has been accumulating and we seem to be going downhill and regressing. There is a lot of frustration in the locker room and we have to find a way to turn it around. We have to find something to change the season and get back to where we were earlier."
--Before the two-point loss to Montana State, the Lumberjacks lost the previous four games by an average of 19.5 points.
--Tate Unruh's two technical free throws against Eastern Washington, securing a 71-70 win at home Jan. 14 with 12 seconds remaining, puts him at 23 of 24 (95.8 percent) from the free-throw line this season.
"He's like the (second) all-time leading shooter in Missouri state high school basketball history from the free-throw line," Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill said of Unruh. "So if you're going to have a guy at the free-throw line in that situation that's a pretty good one to have."
--Northern Colorado's game against Eastern Washington on Jan. 14 was moved up one hour to accommodate fans interested in watching Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos play in the AFC divisional playoffs against the New England Patriots. The tip-off time for the Bears game against the Eagles at the Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion was moved to 4:05 p.m., at the request of Altitude Sports and Entertainment, which televised the game as its Big Sky Conference Game of the Week.
--The Bears, the defending Big Sky champs, avoided their first three-game losing streak in four seasons with their 71-70 win over Eastern Washington.
"I think our kids took a big step toward growing up," Hill said. "I've been complaining about their youth and their inexperience all year, and I think they took a big step in that second half today. It's always good to get a win, and it's good to get a win in front of the home crowd. It's good for these guys to see what they have to do, that they can succeed in a close game, to gain some confidence in a tight, physical conference game."
--Portland State won its first Big Sky road game in a year, with its 86-75 win over Northern Colorado on Jan. 12, after losing eight in a row. The Vikings also won their first true road game of this season. They are 3-8 away from home, but the other two wins were neutral site victories against Louisiana Tech and Maryland-Eastern Shore in Laramie, Wyo.
--Portland State entered its game at Northern Colorado on Jan. 12 as the best shooting team in the Big Sky Conference at .480 from the field, but the worst three-point shooting team in the Big Sky at .292. The most threes the Vikings made in any game all season was seven. But they reached that mark within the first 15 minutes and made 13 for the night in their 86-75 win at Greeley, Colo. Portland State shot 61.9 percent from three-point range and 61.7 percent overall.
--The Vikings shot a remarkable 19 for 26 in the first half (.731) against Northern Colorado, including 9-12 from three-point range. At one point, the Vikings made 17 of their first 21 shots (.810). Portland State led 49-36 at halftime en route to an 86-75 victory.
"That first half we played was as good as we've played all year," said Portland State coach Tyler Geving. "Coming off a tough loss against (league-leading) Weber State (88-81 at home on Jan. 7) I was worried how we would respond, but we really responded. We shared the basketball and that's how we got open shots."
--Longtime Sacramento State coach Jack Heron, who was associated with the program for more than 20 years, as both a player (1949-50) and coach (1964-84), died recently. In 1964, he joined head coach Ev Shelton's staff as the head junior varsity coach before taking over the varsity reigns in 1968 when Shelton retired. Heron served as head coach from 1968-78, and 1979-84, missing the final eight games of the 1977-78 season and all of 1978-79 because of eye surgery. During his tenure as head coach, he led the Hornets to three conference championships (1969-70, 1971-72 and 1976-77) and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1969-70.
The longest-tenured men's basketball coach in Sacramento State history (15 years), Heron is the program's all-time leader in victories (196), conference wins (104) and conference championships (three). He posted a 104-73 record (.588 winning percentage) in conference play.
--Sacramento State's demoralizing 68-67 loss to Idaho State, a game in which the Hornets led by 22 points with 11:21 remaining, wasted an impressive performance from junior center Konner Veteto who had a career-high 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field and 7-of-10 from the free throw line. Veteto also grabbed eight rebounds in a career-high 28 minutes. The 25 points were the most by a Sacramento State player this season.
--Sacramento State dropped its sixth straight game with the loss to Idaho State, including its last four at home through Jan. 14. The Hornets also lost at home to Idaho State for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
--The Hornets continue to have trouble in close games, as the team was 0-5 in games decided by five points or less entering the week, and 1-7 in games decided by single digits.
--The last time Weber State senior guard Damian Lillard, who missed last season with a knee injury, played Montana in Ogden, the Grizzlies won by erasing a 20-point halftime lead. Lillard reminded his teammates of that fact at halftime when the Wildcats led 49-36 over Montana on Jan. 14.
"At halftime that was the main thing I kept harping on," said Lillard, who led both teams with 21 points in Weber State's 80-64 win. "I let the guys know we have to step on them and keep them down and don't let it turn into a dogfight. Last time that happened, we ended up losing the Big Sky championship."
--Lillard continues to lead the nation in scoring with 25.5 points per game. With his 21-point performance in an 80-64 win against Montana on Jan. 14, he passed Willie Sojourner and moved into fourth place on the career scoring list at Weber State.
--The Wildcats committed a season-low four turnovers against Montana and improved to 8-0 this season when scoring 80 or more points.
--The Wildcats had 19 points off the bench against Montana, all coming in the first half. Junior forward Frank "Mook" Otis had seven points in his first action since missing the last nine games with a knee injury. Freshman guard Gelaun Wheelwright also added seven for Weber State.
"I thought the difference of the game was our bench and the way they contributed," said Weber State head coach Randy Rahe. "Montana played really tough as they always do. We made some defensive stops and fought really hard on the defensive end. I was proud of the way we fought and our mindset."