Lumberjacks return home looking for a win streak
BY BRIAN GOSSET —
With nine games remaining, NAU will enter a stretch determining whether they will be playing more basketball during spring break. The Lumberjacks (8–14, 5–6 Big Sky Conference) will finish the season against the top three teams in the conference, with a trip to Hawaii in between, but before they look ahead, they cannot take this weekend’s games lightly.
After going 1–7 from Dec. 19 through Jan.17, the Lumberjacks have won three of the past five games following their thrilling 62–61 victory against Sacramento State on Feb. 4. Down 14 in the second half, NAU finished the game on a 25–10 run, highlighted by senior guard Michael Dunn’s game-winning free throws with 7.4 seconds left.
“It was a very big win for us. Anytime you can win on the road, it [is] always a big deal and it will give us a lot of momentum,” said junior forward Max Jacobsen, who scored 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the win.
Now the Lumberjacks finish the week with two home games, first against Portland State University (PSU) on Feb. 7, then against Eastern Washington University (EWU) on Feb. 9.
Both teams are in the bottom three of the conference standings, but only two games separate the three teams. With seven teams making the conference tournament in March, NAU stands at sixth, owning the tiebreaker with Sacramento State.
“Now we’re tied with Sacramento State; we have a tiebreaker with them. We stay a game ahead of the pack, now we go home riding high,” said head coach Jack Murphy.
PSU (5–14, 3–9 BSC) and EWU (6–16, 4–8 BSC) are a combined 0–20 on the road this season and only have seven conference wins combined, but two wins have come against the Lumberjacks.
PSU won the first matchup, 79–74 on Jan. 12, behind senior forward Renado Parker’s 20 points. Four starters for NAU scored in double digits, but all five for the Vikings had 12 or more and had 12 free throws made. Parker averages 10.9 points while junior forward Aaron Moore leads the team with an average of 12.3 per game.
Jan. 10 was a different story in Cheney, Wash. NAU had fewer turnovers, less fouls and more free throws, but only shot 35 percent from the field compared to 50 percent for the Eagles. EWU out rebounded NAU 46–31 and had more assists and blocks on its way to an 82–59 win, their biggest of the season. In their other five wins, they have an average margin of victory of 5.4 points.
Freshman forward Venky Jois leads the way for the Eagles. Australian-born Jois is almost averaging a double-double with 13.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, and leading the conference with 3.4 blocks. He had 14 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in the first meeting. EWU leads the conference with 6.2 blocks per game.
“We’ve talked about this; we needed to steal a road win to make up for some of the home losses we’ve had. Now the challenge is to go home and protect our home court,” Murphy said. “We have two very talented and well-coached teams coming in this week in Portland State and Eastern Washington, so we have to regroup, get some rest these next two days and be ready to go Thursday night.”
Four Lumberjacks are in the top 15 in steals per game, led by freshman guard DeWayne Russell’s 1.7. Jacobsen is second in the conference in field goal percentage at 64.9 percent. Senior guard Stallon Saldivar leads the conference with 5.3 assists and leads the team with a career-high 6.3 rebounds per game.
NAU is last in the Big Sky in scoring defense, giving up 72.2 points per game in conference even though the Lumberjacks lead the Big Sky with 7.7 steals per game. Senior guard Gabe Rogers is fourth in the conference with 17.9 points per game.
“We have to capitalize; we have two very good teams coming to the Skydome. We need these home games; these are big,” Murphy said.