Suffering through a two-week run of six games across Arizona, Kansas, Nevada and California, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks broke through for their first win in their final opportunity before returning to Flagstaff.
After close losses during the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational, 76-66 to Hampton and 77-71 to UC Irvine, Northern Arizona remained one of the last winless schools in Division I. Seven schools are still seeking their first win as of Monday night, including five from the Southwestern Athletic Conference and two from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the two worst-rated conferences in the nation.
“We want to win every game and the season has had some very good moments, we just haven't gotten the W,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy. “So getting that W really gives the guys even more confidence and allows us to have a stronger message. When we keep telling guys to keep playing hard and keep trying, to trust the process, all the things we try to drill in their heads everyday, when you get a W it really helps.”
A key cause in the 1-7 start, Northern Arizona ranks 350th of 351 D-I schools with a 27.2 turnover percentage. Surpassing 20 turnovers in half of its games, Northern Arizona has seen its opponents average 22.75 points off of the Lumberjacks’ turnovers, a number that makes up more than a quarter of their opponents' 81.8 points per game.
In just the third game of the year, and the first of their two-week long road trip, Northern Arizona lost grad transfer Malcolm Allen to a foot injury, eliminating one of the team’s initial options in the backcourt.
“Malcolm’s injury plays into it -- obviously we wanted him to be a primary ball handler and he was coming into it. He got injured in the first minute of the ASU game and he was a guy I was looking to play more going forward,” Murphy said. “JoJo, Torry and Gino are getting into a good rhythm of where they are and their confidence.”
Northern Arizona finally turned the tables Saturday, scoring 27 points off of Cal State Bakersfield’s 25 turnovers, and held its opponent under 30 percent from the 3-point line for just the second time this season. Unlike the first occurrence at Kansas State, where the Wildcats hit 25 for 38 from inside the arc, the Roadrunners connected on 13 of 25 shots as the 13 additional turnovers limited Bakersfield’s chances.
“That was a big win, not just for getting a win, but who we beat,” said Murphy, with the Roadrunners 26-2 at home the past two years. “It is crazy the success that Bakersfield has had, especially in Bakersfield, so to go in there and get that win it was a victory for the whole team.”
The victory also came in the first game of Murphy’s starting lineup changes, as Torry Johnson and Isaiah Thomas moved to the bench with Ruben Fuamba and JoJo Anderson starting the game. Murphy said Anderson's competitiveness night in and night out led to his move into the starting five while Fuamba’s role as an enforcer inside worked well with his early defensive effort.
Thomas responded with his best performance of the year, scoring 12 points and adding 10 rebounds.
“I think that allowed Isaiah and Torry to just go in and play and not have the pressure of having to get us on a good start and the pressure of the first four or five minutes of the game,” said Murphy, with Northern Arizona having trailed by at least seven points that early in five games so far.
“Isaiah had an unbelievable game with 12 points and 10 rebounds,” Murphy added. “And Torry had five assists, which I think is a season-high and something we really need from him because he is so adept at getting inside the paint.”
Shooting 52.2 percent from the field, Northern Arizona surpassed the 40 percent mark for the first time this season.
“Bakersfield is one of the tougher defensive teams that we will see,” Murphy said. “So to handle the pressure how we did, and we still had quite a few turnovers but they were correctable, we settled down once we got into the flow of the game. We got good shots, we were able to get the ball into the paint, and that's what we want to do, so I saw some progress even on the offensive end.”
The rough non-conference road continues following Wednesday’s meeting with NAIA San Diego Christian, as the next week includes San Diego and South Dakota, with both schools’ KenPom rankings sitting above most or all schools in the Big Sky.
Along with Allen’s ongoing absence, Northern Arizona is now waiting to hear how serious Fuamba’s foot injury is as well as awaiting the return of Kye de Laveaga, who has played sporadically and not since the UC Irvine game more than a week ago.