January 29, 2009

Men's basketball gets sweet Sacramento sweep

BOX SCORE: at Sacramento State
STANDINGS: Big Sky Conference

SACRAMENTO -- Northern Colorado's men's basketball team continued its evolution Thursday night into what head coach Tad Boyle ultimately envisions for his program.

Boyle has big plans for the Bears, and Thursday night's 66-59 win against Sacramento State in the Hornets Nest has him and Northern Colorado one step closer toward them.

The Bears got their second road victory in as many weeks here tonight, and Northern Colorado, which defeated Sacramento State 91-73 earliier this month in Greeley, also earned its first regular-season series sweep against a Big Sky opponent since becoming a league member in 2006.

The Bears (9-13, 5-4 Big Sky) also moved above the .500 mark in conference play after nine games for the first time since beginning NCAA Division I play.

"We're starting to check things off with our program, as far as milestones with Northern Colorado and Division I men's basketball," Boyle said. "The thing we checked off tonight is we got our first sweep over any Big Sky program. Our next goal is to get our first Big Sky road sweep, and we can do that Saturday night against Northern Arizona (6:35 p.m. MT). I'm just very proud of our guys, and I really like where our program is headed."

Senior Jabril Banks put in a team-high 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds Thursday night to pace the Bears, and junior John Pena poured in 16 points and swiped three steals against Sacramento State (2-20, 1-8).

True-freshman Mike Proctor was also a highlight, scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds off the bench.

"Mike Proctor has probably been the most pleasant surprise of our recruiting class," Boyle said. "He just keeps getting better and better."

Pena, who scored a career-high 22 points in Northern Colorado's previous victory this season against the Hornets, hit big shot after big shot for the Bears. His three-pointer at 12:16 in the second half put Northern Colorado up two; his long-range shot at 7:36 put the Bears up seven; his three at 2:17 gave Boyle's bunch a lead, 61-59, it wouldn't relinquish.

"I thought John Pena was super in this one," Boyle said.

All of the Bears really buckled down, down the stretch Thursday night. Northern Colorado had previously suffered heart-breaking overtime road losses at Idaho State and Weber State this season, and all the makings were there Thursday night for a repeat performance.

And on top of that, the Bears' 74-70 toe-stub defeat here last season -- one of just two Sacramento State conference victories -- had to be fresh in the memory.

But there was no repeat here tonight.

Just a calm get-it-done road victory for the Bears.

"We talked about it at the final media timeout," Boyle said. "I told our guys, 'We know how to win these games. We've just got to stay the course, one possession at a time. We've got to do it on the defensive end.' And we got stops tonight and got a really big victory. We didn't panic, we didn't get our heads down."

One of the most telling stats Thursday night was an obvious one: the final score. Northern Colorado allowed Sacramento State to score 73 points just a little over two weeks ago in Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.

The 59 points surrendered Thursday night was the second fewest Northern Colorado has given up this season (55, at Montana State), and this is the third time in four games that the Bears have given up fewer than 60 points.

"I'm really proud of our whole team tonight," Boyle said. "There are some guys I'd still like to get more minutes -- Chris Kaba and Robert Palacios, I'd like to get them more minutes -- but it's tough. But the guys that were out there tonight really produced."