Big Sky men's basketball tournament

Sac State scorches NAU, SUU runs past ISU, into quarterfinals


The Big Sky Conference men’s basketball championship tournament kicked off in Boise, Idaho on Wednesday morning. Updates of each game can be found here throughout the rest of the week.

No. 9 Sacramento State 72, No. 8 Northern Arizona 60

A late-night shoot around loosened the Sacramento State Hornets up for an early-morning 3-point barrage in the Big Sky Tournament.

Sac State practiced late Tuesday night, after the last of the women’s quarterfinal games wrapped up. It must have done something, as barely 10 hours later, the No. 9 seed Hornets made 12-of-20 3s — 8-of-9 in the first half — to cruise to a comfortable 72-60 win over No. 8 Northern Arizona Wednesday morning in Boise.

“We were just trying to have a lot of fun out there,” Sac State All-Big Sky senior point guard Marcus Graves said. “We’re a really close team and we have a lot of fun, and that really carries over into our game. So we just tried to have fun out there and be aggressive.”

Sac State will play No. 1 Montana in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

Graves scored 27 points and Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa added 17 for the Hornets, with the two guards combining to shoot 11-for-18 from deep. They added a combined seven steals.

“They’re a different ball club when [Mauriohooho-Le’afa] is making 3s,” NAU coach Jack Murphy said. “When he’s not making 3s, they’re not as good. When he’s making 3s, they can beat anybody in the league.”

Izayah Mauriohoohoo-Le’afa drives to the hoop/ by Brooks Nuanez

After a big first-half run, Sac State held a double-digit lead for the entire second half to eliminate the Lumberjacks. Bernie Andre had a double-double with 19 points and 12 rebounds for Northern Arizona, which came in as a trendy dark-horse pick after playing Montana to the buzzer and then beating No. 2 seed Northern Colorado in the last week of the regular season.

The Lumberjacks jumped out to a quick lead, making their first two 3-pointers, thanks to an offensive adjustment that took the Hornets a couple possessions to figure out.

“In the on-ball, they were hitting the roll man, but instead of trying to score, he was throwing it out,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “That was an adjustment, they hadn’t done it before. … It took us a couple minutes to figure it out.”

Once Sac State found its footing, though, it became apparent that the Lumberjacks would have to shoot the lights out to hang.

Mauriohooho-Le’afa scored eight points, including two 3s, in a 10-0 Hornets run over 1:49 that gave Sac State a seven-point lead at the first media timeout. The rest of the half was just NAU trying to keep up.

After Mauriohooho-Le’afa — a 28-percent 3-point shooter this season — made four 3-pointers in the first nine minutes, Graves inherited the momentum and turned into a fireball from deep.

He made his first 3-pointer with 8:07 left in the half and added two more in the last three minutes of the period, including a deep one with six seconds before halftime to appropriately cap Sac State’s shooting exhibition.

Mauriohooho-Le’afa and Graves combined to shoot 7-of-7 from 3 in the first 20 minutes, and Sac State as a whole was 8-for-9. The Hornets led 42-27 at the break.

“If we shot like that all year…” Katz said, letting the thought trail off. “That’s been our Achilles heel, so to speak. I could kind of see it coming. We’ve shot the ball better the last month. A little bit of it was confidence.”

Sac State head coach Brian Katz/ by Brooks Nuanez

The second half was mostly a formality . Northern Arizona went to a press and cut the lead to 10 with under nine minutes left, but Graves answered by draining an NBA-range 3 from the top of the key with the shot clock winding down to push the lead back to 13.

Calm and expressionless the whole game, the senior held his follow-through for a second after that one before slapping his leg in excitement.

“He made some clutch ones at the end of the shot clock that were backbreakers,” Murphy said. “We had a little bit of momentum. Our defense was much better in the second half than it was in the first … but he had backbreaking 3s.”

The one worry for Sacramento State was apparent leg injuries suffered by Graves and Mauriohooho-Le’afa late in the game. Graves missed all of last season because of back surgery. 

Graves returned to the game after limping off and looked fine, while Mauriohooho-Le’afa did not come back in the game after he came up grabbing the back of his left leg with a few minutes left.

Sac State takes on the Griz at noon on Thursday. Montana swept the Hornets during the regular season.


No. 7 Southern Utah 94, No. 10 Idaho State 80

Southern Utah turned up the defense late in the second half to pull away from Idaho State in a 94-80 win that only became comfortable late.

Big man Andre Adams scored 23 points with eight rebounds for the No. 7 Thunderbirds.

No. 10 Idaho State went scoreless for a 4:47 stretch late in the game as SUU went on a 10-0 run to stretch a six-point lead to 16.

By the time Gary Chivichyan snapped the scoreless streak with a 3-pointer, it was garbage time, with the Thunderbirds up double digits and under a minute left.

“I thought our closeouts were fantastic, where they couldn’t get a good look at the rim,” Southern Utah coach Todd Simon said. “We were really flying around, funneling it in to [Adams] in the middle of the zone. That [stretch] was a testament to these guys flying around and closing out on shooters.”

Southern Utah will play No. 2 Northern Colorado in the quarterfinals Thursday.

Southern Utah center Andre Adams/by Brooks Nuanez

Idaho State shot out to a 15-4 lead after starting 3-for-4 from long-distance, but hot shooting and a defensive switch helped Southern Utah turn around its slow start.

Simon went to a zone, which helped slow down the Bengals — they shot just 5-for-19 from deep the rest of the way.

“I really just think we settled down,” Simon said. “I thought the zone was very good for us, especially in that second half. … We do a good job with our length of getting out to shooters, so I thought that was a huge turning point in the game for us.”

The Thunderbirds, meanwhile, started playing inside-out through Adams and making their triples. Brandon Better, who scored 17 points in just 17 minutes, singlehandedly erased the Bengal lead by hitting three 3s in a minute and a half to tie the game at 20-20 with 10:20 left in the first half.

Idaho State finished 11-for-15 from deep in the game, with Better going 5-for-6 on his own.

“The key for us is we didn’t want to hunt [3s],” Simon said. “We wanted to get them out of the inside-out game, or ball reversal. So we saw a healthy dose of corner 3s or things that usually come off some kind of action. I think that a testament to these guys … 21 assists in 29 field goals is all them. That was a great way to share the ball.”

After Better’s skein, the rest of the first half settled into a high-energy, back-and-forth game.

Harrison Butler’s steal and dunk for Southern Utah with three seconds left in the half cut Idaho State’s slim lead to 41-40 at the break.

Southern Utah’s Cameron Oluyitan closes on on Idaho State shooter Gary Chivichyan/ by Brooks Nuanez

In the second half, Southern Utah’s shooting continued to be the difference.

The Thunderbirds took the lead for good on a Jacob Calloway 3 with 14:48 to go, and extended it out from there by relying on Adams and Butler inside.

Idaho State’s best comeback chance probably came when Brandon Boyd got a steal and layup to cut the deficit to four with 6:41 to go, but Bengal big man Kelvin Jones fouled out during a scramble for the ball on the next possession.

On his way to the bench, Jones picked up a technical as well, which ended up giving Southern Utah a four-point possession, and an eight-point lead, after all the free throws.

“I think it had an affect on the game,” Idaho State coach Bill Evans said. “Sometimes in the heat of the battle, we do things that we shouldn’t do, lose our composure a little bit. That’s what he did. It’s unfortunate, but there’s a lot of plays that make up a game. It’s not one plays or two plays, it’s a combination of a bunch of plays.”

A Chier Maker layup cut it back down to six, but that just keyed the late defensive run by Southern Utah — the Bengals wouldn’t score again until Chivichyan’s late 3 with the game decided.

Alonzo Walker led Idaho State with 17 points.


About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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