RENO, Nevada — As what once was an 18-point lead disintegrated, Sacramento State true freshman Bryce Fowler looked like the top freshman in the Big Sky.
With his team clinging to a one-point lead with three minutes, 20 seconds remaining after Fowler’s barrage of 3-pointers, Portland State’s Holland Woods proved why he earned the league’s Freshman of the Year award.
The smooth point guard hit a 3-pointer to give the Vikings breathing room after Sac State erased a sizeable lead to make it a 60-59 affair, part of a closing stretch in which he scored the final 11 points of the game to lead the sixth-seeded Vikings into the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament with a 71-67 victory over Sac State.
“I think that was validation pretty good if anyone had any question on that of who was Freshman of the Year,” PSU first-year head coach Barret Peery said. “He has spoiled me all year long simply with the fact that I forget that he’s a freshman.”
Woods finished with 18 points and four of PSU’s eight assists as the Vikings overcame a second half in which they shot just 33 percent from the floor and missed seven of their eight tries from beyond the 3-point arc.
Portland State’s star rookie finished 9-of-10 from the foul line on a day that started with excitement because of his first Big Sky Tournament but also with heartache when he found out during the team’s shoot around Tuesday morning that one of his best friends Jmy Holloway had lost his four-year battle with Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I was really excited before but I came into today going through it a little bit because one of my best friends, I found out his passed away earlier this morning so I really wanted to play for him today,” said Woods, who had JMY written on his taped left wrist. “That was just on my mind so much but I wanted to do what I could for my team and we pulled it out. He was with me all night so that one was for him.”
For most of the first 25 minutes, Portland State controlled the action but for the next 12, Sac State looked like the team that swept the Vikings during the regular season rather than the team that won just four Big SKy games and just seven games overall during an injury-riddled campaign that started with All-Big Sky point guard Marcus Graves suffering a season-ending knee injury last summer and never let up.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a team in my life. Ever,” Sac State 10th-year head coach Brian Katz said. “I’ve had teams that won 30 games and I’ve never been proud of a team. This team was so resilient, so competitive.”
Sac cut the lead to three, 67-64, on Fowler’s fourth and final 3-pointer, giving the 6-foot-6 combo guard 16 points. The Hornets shaved the deficit to 69-67 with four seconds left on Kevin Hicks’ second-chance triple. But each time Sac sliced the lead, Woods stepped to the free throw line and buried two more free throws.
“This was one of those prototypical nights in March. I don’t think people are going to go away,” Peery said. “…What’s unique in leagues, you see it all over the country but different matchups are difficult and Sac State has been an unbelievably difficult challenge for us for one reason or another.”
Portland State turned heads around the country in November and December with its impressive play. The Vikings hung with top-ranked Duke, went down to the wire before losing by two to perennial power Butler and ripped Stanford in the Phil Knight 80 Tournament in Portland over Thanksgiving. PSU hung 111, 125 and 116 points in its three non-Division opponents, three of just four home games the Vikings played in their first 16 contests.
Portland State annihilated Cal, posting a 106-81 win in Berkley in its final non-conference game to cap a 10-3 non-conference slate in which the Vikings averaged 90 points and forced 20 turnovers a game.
Then Sacramento State shocked the rest of the league by posting an 80-75 win over the Viks in the Big Sky opener for both teams in Sacramento. The Hornet win was even more surprising given Sac’s 3-10 non-conference record that included just one D-I win.
Sac State proved its formula to Peery’s high-pressure was no fluke, beating Portland State 71-61 in Portland a month after the first victory. On Tuesday, the Vikings eventually earned revenge, stamping a 20-win season since Ken Bone led PSU to the 2009 Big Sky title and a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“They swept us in the regular season and we got them when it really counts, so that means a lot to us,” PSU senior Bryce Canda said after leading the Vikings with 16 points and nine rebounds.
With Graves out, junior guard Jeff Wu on the shelf, Fowler playing 34 minutes on a broken foot that will require surgery, Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa playing with a herniated disk in his back, Portland State could put a majority of its defensive focus on All-Big Sky forward Justin Strings. The Vikings limited the second-team all-league pick to 2-of-12 shooting and seven points.
The 6-foot-7 Strings ends his career as one of the most uniquely productive players this decade in the Big Sky and one of the great players in Sacramento State history. The three-time All-Big Sky selection finishes his career with 1,570 points, the most in the Division I era for Sac State and the second-most in school history.
“I have never seen leadership like (Strings) had this year. Ever. Ever, ever, ever,” Katz said. “Never seen anything like that. He gave a speech before senior night and said, ‘Look, I haven’t done a good job leading, it’s all on me, it’s my fault’ which is absolutely not true and every guy knew it. He really demonstrated leadership starts at the top with the best player taking accountability and responsibility for his action. I’ve never been around a better leader, ever.”
Strings played a full 40 minutes in the last game of his collegiate career, collecting a team-high eight rebounds and taking the final shot of Sac State’s season. In the post-game press conference, Katz paused during his opening statement to put his arm around his captain, give him a hug and gently kiss his forehead as Strings fought back tears in a poignant moment symbolic of Sac State’s emotional season.
“Definitely a tough year but injuries and everything aside, I wouldn’t have traded any of these guys in for anything,” Strings said. “The dudes we had fought so hard every day. I was proud to be able to lead them into battle every day. With all the guys going down and for us to be able to come out and show up every day and come out and play hard every night and give each other as brothers everything we had, it really makes me proud.”s
Portland State’s attention now turns to a quarterfinal matchup with No. 3 seed Eastern Washington. Led by Big Sky MVP Bogdan Bliznyuk, the Eagles are one of the league’s hottest teams, having won six straight to close the regular season, including handing outright champion Montana its first Big Sky loss. EWU beat PSU 81-74 behind 28 points and 12 rebounds from Bliznyuk, then earned the season sweep with a 94-81 win in Portland in which Bliznyuk became just the fourth player in Big Sky history to surpass 2,000 points in his career.
“You can’t give up 3-point shots and you can never foul (Bliznyuk) because he never misses a free throw,” Peery said. “He has scored a million points in the last four years. We did a good job on him at our place (13 points) but if he dominates the game, you are going to lose. You can’t let the league MVP dominate the game in the tournament or you are going to lose.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.