RENO — In the first week of March, Ethan Telfair declared his intention to finish his Idaho State career with a flourish. Despite Idaho State’s disappointing season that included just three wins in the Big Sky Conference, last season’s Newcomer of the Year in the league, was determined to finish his senior season with a surge.
The skilled combo guard said he believed the Bengals could compete with anyone in this week’s league tournament here if they could simply distance themselves from the harsh realities of their No. 10 seed and the struggles they have endured for a calendar year.
For the first half of Tuesday’s first round tournament game against No. 7 seed Sacramento State, Telfair and the Bengals returned to the form that helped them win 11 league contests last season. Idaho State moved the ball crisply, showed balanced scoring and got to the free throw line prevalently, getting Sac State senior center Eric Stuteville and his backup Joshua Patton into foul trouble in the process. Idaho State took a 43-40 lead to halftime.
Sac State hit six of its 16 attempts from beyond the arc before halftime, missing seven of its last eight shots from deep. Sac missed its first three 3-point tries of the second half as well before reevaluating and pounding the Bengals inside.The Hornets scored 19 of their 25 second chance points after halftime thanks to 12 of their 17 offensive rebounds. Sac State scored 34 of its 50 second-half points in the paint led by senior Nick Hornsby’s physical effort to post a 91-76 victory in the second of three first-round games on Tuesday.
“We are a big team and getting inside is what we do,” said Hornsby, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound brick house. “It’s all about being aggressive. We wanted to focus on attacking the basket.
“The second chance points is 100 percent effort. We are always going to the boards being aggressive and getting extra points.”
The win means the Hornets, winners of six of nine, will take on second-seeded Eastern Washington. EWU beat Sac 77-72 in Cheney on February 2 in the only matchup between the two teams. The first game of the second session will tip at 5:35 p.m. PST.
Hornsby converted six of seven shots and al three of his free throws in scoring 15 of his 18 points after halftime, including hitting three fade-away jump shots on the baseline that helped swing the momentum in Sac’s favor.
Hornsby’s first bucket of the second half capped a 7-0 Sac State run to turn a 51-49 deficit into a 56-51 lead with 13:33 to play. His first fade-away gave Sac its first double-digit lead, 72-61, with 5:28 left. His second gave Sac a 76-63 lead with 4:33 left. His 3-point play after his third offensive rebound pushed the lead to 79-65 with less than four minutes. Hornsby scored 11 of his points in the final 5:28.
“Circus shots,” Sac State head coach Brian Katz quipped.
“At the beginning of the season, I was hitting some step-backs in the paint,” Hornsby said with a smile. “I haven’t shot those for awhile. I was confident in myself.”
The Hornets were able to pull away by pounding the ball inside offensively and disrupting Idaho State’s offensive flow in the second half. Sac State opened up its second half lead while ISU was mired in a shooting slump that saw the Bengals miss nine of 10 shots.
“We knew we didn’t come out and play defense the way we wanted to in the first half,” Sac State junior Justin Strings said after scoring 17 points, including 15 in the first half. “They are a good transition team. They try to get out and beat you on the break. We had to adjust and do a better job of getting back, stopping the ball.”
Telfair fought tooth and nail in his final collegiate game to keep ISU in it. His second field goal in the second half gave ISU a 51-47 lead with 16:26 left to play, Idaho State’s largest lead. He made 7-of-8 free throws in the final 10 minutes and 9-of-10 overall in finishing with 22 points. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, nabbed four steals and dished out four assists in 40 minutes of action.
“I’ll tell you one thing, he was terrific tonight. Terrific,” ISU head coach Bill Evans said. “I’ll tell you this: he was the only guy crying.”
The Bengals missed seven of eight 3-pointers and seven of 17 free throw attempts in the second half as ISU finished the season 5-26.
“This team was more talented team than last year,” said Evans, the league’s Coach of the Year last season. “There’s a lot of things that can get in the way of talent. Potential doesn’t win games. Productivity wins games. We weren’t productive enough.”
While ISU lost its offensive flow, Sac State continued to pound the ball inside. Junior point guard Marcus Graves scored 14 of his 18 points after halftime by converting 8-of-10 free throws. He also dished out six assists as Sac notched 17 dimes. When he wasn’t penetrating exploding to the rim, he was looking for Hornsby or Stuteville, who finished with 10 points and eight rebounds before fouling out.
“That’s our thing (scoring inside) like always, we just didn’t do it in the first half,” Katz said. “Give them credit. They played zone and they bracketed and blanketed our low post players. It’s a game of adapting and adjusting. I said, ‘hey guys, we shot too many 3s, haven’t gotten enough paint touches so second half, this needs to happen.”
Sac State earned a 46-28 advantage on the glass led by Hornsby’s nine rebounds. Stuteville chipped in eight and Patton grabbed six before fouling out.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Katz said. “We always say we have to bomb them on the boards. We have big guys. We aren’t a great perimeter shooting team. We need to get to the foul line and win the battle of the boards, take great shots, shoot a high percentage.”
Sac State’s attention now turns to Eastern Washington, the league’s only 20-win team. EWU sports Jake Wiley, the league’s MVP and one of the premier big men in all of mid-major college hoops. Wiley averaged 25.3 points on 68.8 percent shooting and grabbed 10.2 rebounds per game. He scored 28 points on 14-of-18 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds in Eastern’s win over Sac State.
“Everybody every year always says it’s wide open and I always say, ‘No it’s not. It’s not wide open. Everybody wants to say that as coaches,” Katz said. “This is the first year I’m going to say it’s wide open. Eight of the 11 teams in my opinion can win it. I’ve never said that before. It’s the most balanced conference I’ve seen in my nine years.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.