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Justin Strings, Sacramento State upend Big Sky by knocking off Portland State

NCAA Basketball: Sacramento State at St. Mary's D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Sky’s non-conference darling had a jarring start to league play.

Behind a career-high 34 points from Justin Strings, Sacramento State dropped Portland State 80-75 in both teams’ Big Sky opener on Saturday night. It dealt the Viks their fourth loss of the season, and first at the hands of a team not in the Pac-12 or Big East.

Early on, it looked like PSU would continue riding its non-conference momentum. The Viks went up 29-13 on a Bryce Canda three with 9:55 left in the first half. The Hornets would respond with a 20-4 run to get back in the game. It was started by Strings (16-18 FG), who had a dizzying run of efficiency after two early missed shots.

PSU would battle back to take a six-point half time lead, but Strings led a 47-point Hornet second half, scoring 19 points in a variety of ways inside the three-point arc. Another Canda three gave the Viks a 65-63 lead with just over five minutes left, before Sac State closed the game on a 17-10 run.

Strings (34 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) was supported by junior guard Jordan Tolbert’s career-high 19 points, but the senior forward’s banner night was the story. It was the 2017-18 highlight to a career that’s seen Strings start over 60 games, score over 1,000 points and grab over 500 rebounds.

Tenth-year Sac State coach Brian Katz talked about Strings’ importance to the program in an interview earlier this season.

“He’s just so solid in everything he does,” Katz said. “Solid scorer, rebounder, decision-maker, handler. He’s just been very, very solid.”

Strings began his career on one of the best teams in Hornet history. In 2014-15, Sac State won 21 games and made its first appearance in a Div. I postseason tournament (the CIT). But Strings, a freshman on that team, hardly saw the court (4.2 MPG).

That stuck with him that following summer.

“The main thing I did was tell myself if I wanted to play more, I had to get better in every aspect,” Strings said. “I knew that I had to come in and try and separate myself with my play, I worked hard [that] offseason, using the motivating factor of not playing the year before.”

It paid off. Strings made a leap as a sophomore, vaulting into the starting lineup as he averaged 31.5 minutes per game and started 21 games. His production exploded (15.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG) that year, and has remained consistent ever since. It culminated in a spot on the all-league second team a year ago.

His signature moment — to this point — was Saturday night in an upset win that, at least for one night, upended league perceptions. PSU and Sac State landed at eighth and ninth, respectively, in the Big Sky’s preseason coaches poll, but have headed in opposite directions since.

The Viks took full advantage of the PK80, getting the country’s attention by leading Duke at halftime, and then battling Butler to a two-point loss and knocking off Stanford. They also beat Cal and Utah State, and seemed primed to dominate the Big Sky with a high-flying offense and disruptive defense.

That may still happen, but Sac State (4-10), which had just one Div. I win this season, got in the way on opening night. And in beating 144th-ranked PSU, it was the Hornets’ best KenPom win since they toppled Montana on Feb. 4, 2016.

Sac State will try to follow up it up by traveling to a very good Idaho team on Jan. 4, while PSU continues a tough-opening trip with a stop at Eastern Washington before going to Moscow itself.