Keyed by eight straight points from JoJo Anderson late in the second half, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks rallied to snap a six-game losing streak Thursday night against the Sacramento State Hornets.
Trailing by six with 8:31 remaining, Anderson hit a pair of corner 3-pointers a minute apart to tie the game and added another seven points down the stretch to aid the Lumberjacks (5-23, 2-13 Big Sky) to a 58-53 victory. The win kept Northern Arizona in contention to pass the Hornets (6-22, 3-12) for 11th in the Big Sky with three games remaining and stands as its first Division-I home victory this season.
“We didn’t play great offense in the first half, but our defense never really waned,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy, as Northern Arizona tied a season-low with 18 points in the opening half. “We could rely on the defense until the offense came around, even though a nine-point game at halftime felt like a 20-point game because points were at such a premium.”
After shooting 24 percent in the first half, the Lumberjacks hit 45.8 percent from the field in the second and connected on 15 of 18 free throws, including their final 10 attempts.
“For our guys, it has been a hard year,” Murphy said. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it, but for us to come back and keep battling, the guys have never quit.”
Anderson led the Lumberjacks with 15 points, all coming in the final 12 minutes of the game, less than a week after playing sparingly in an overtime loss at North Dakota. Finishing with one of his most efficient games of the season, Anderson hit 4 of 6 from the field and 4 of 4 from the free-throw line.
“Not playing was on me. Kind of went negative when certain things didn't go my way and coach talked to me about it. It’s something I have been working on all year,” Anderson said. “Today was about just trying to be there for the team and be positive. I got in foul trouble pretty early, and so it was a good opportunity for me to make adjustments and be more mature about it. I kept my head for the second half and was able to make plays for the team.”
While Anderson bounced back after an uneven week for the Lumberjacks, the Hornets’ leading scorer struggled to his worst game in roughly 15 months.
Entering with an average of 18.3 points per game, Sacramento State’s Justin Strings had scored double-digits in 47 straight games dating back to Dec. 29, 2016. With just three points on 1-of-14 shooting from the field in 36 minutes, Strings essentially finished Thursday night with his worst production since taking over as a starter in 2015.
Kevin Hicks scored a career-high 14 points for the Hornets, helped by 11 points from both Bryce Fowler and Izayah Mauriohooho-le'afa, as Sacramento State led for nearly 29 minutes of play.
“I understand Sac State is going through a lot right now in terms of their injuries, losing Marcus Graves, Jeff Wu, (Jiday) Ugbaja,” Murphy said. “For them to come battle like they have been battling and for us to step up without Gino (Littles) and all that, I mean it shows a lot of character for both teams.”
Starting the game without a true point guard, as Littles missed Thursday with a knee injury and is expected to miss Saturday’s Senior Day as well, Northern Arizona struggled to find a flow on offense. After Isaiah Thomas put down a dunk with 9:30 left in the first half, the Lumberjacks failed to put a ball through the net until Karl Harris hit a jumper 25 seconds after halftime.
Northern Arizona scored just six points in the meantime, with four free throws and a goaltending call making up the Lumberjacks' entire offense across the back half of the opening 20 minutes.
Turning around its attack in the second half, Northern Arizona scored the final six points of the game in the last 53 seconds to rally back after a quick strike by Sacramento State.
With Corey Brown putting the Lumberjacks ahead 52-48, the Hornets answered on a layup from Joshua Patton. Brown missed a layup 20 seconds later, with Brooks DeBisschop grabbing the offensive rebound under the basket.
However, Patton blocked the putback attempt and Fowler hit a go-ahead 3 moments later on the other end. The teams traded missed shots before DeBisschop earned a second chance, as Brown dropped in an entry pass from the top of the arc, allowing the sophomore to to put the Lumberjacks ahead 54-53 with just 53 seconds left.
“The one where he got blocked, he just kind of had it in his left hand and he never really felt like he had it all there,” Murphy said of DeBisschop. “He should have gathered and been a little stronger with it because Patten is a really good shot blocker. Late in the game, for him to get the ball back and give us the lead was a huge play.”