For the past two weeks, much of Northern Arizona’s offense has run through juniors Torry Johnson and Karl Harris, with the duo finishing one-two in scoring in all four games.
With JoJo Anderson sidelined with a hip injury, Johnson has averaged 19.5 points and Harris has added 14.7 per game. Johnson’s run includes a career-high 27 points in Northern Arizona’s win at Montana State, while Harris topped out with a career-best 23 in a two-point loss to Idaho State.
Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy has been preaching the need for consistency amidst a 4-20 season, and both players have been effective in their high-scoring performances.
Johnson has hit 56.8 percent from the field in that span, 25 of 44 overall, and reached the free-throw line 27 times at a 77.7 percent rate. Similarly, Harris connected on 20 of 41 from the field in the past two weeks, with the two combining to hit more field goals than the rest of the roster combined during the four-game stretch.
The Lumberjacks sit at 40.7 percent from the field in their last four, with the average dropping to 32.8 when taking out Johnson and Harris’ contributions. The lone blemishes on their runs came in single games, with Johnson committing seven turnovers at Montana and Harris finishing 8 of 18 from the field against Idaho State.
“The thing that I like is they are juniors,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy. “Torry coming off an ACL -- it takes some time. We see that all across sports. It has taken half the season to get his legs under him. For Karl, coming from a junior college, sometimes it takes a little bit of time there to really get a feel for it and really get back into the swing of things at the Division I level.”
Harris’ arrival from Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, may not have been possible without Johnson on the roster. Going to Chicago High Schools only 12 miles apart from each other, Johnson and Harris knew one another long ago.
“Torry was a big part of it, I played AAU basketball with him since I was probably 9 years old,” Harris said. “I have been bouncing around from school to school -- I just wanted somewhere I could call home and develop as a player and a person.”
Calling his visit to the city and initial meetings with Murphy great, Harris said it was the people at Northern Arizona that brought him to town.
After growing up in Chicago, Harris moved on to La Salle right out of high school and spent a year in Philadelphia. After years in two of America’s biggest cities, Harris landed in a town of roughly 25,000 people nearly at the center of the country. Harris said he found Flagstaff and Northern Arizona a happy medium between the two styles of living.
“It is different, of course, but it is good just to experience how people do things differently in different places,” Harris said. “I was in Philly my first year, which is kind of similar to Chicago, an urban city more fast-paced. Then it is like a culture shock when I moved to Iowa for eight months in junior college. It just humbled me.
“Coming out to Flagstaff, it is kind of in-between. You have a big university, but not in such a big city. You still have the vibe of a quiet town,” Harris added.
With their brothers playing together in high school, Johnson said the connection between the two families played a part in Harris finding a new D-I home. Johnson’s father Terry, a coach at Torry’s high school in Chicago, let it be known there was another Chicago-based player available.
“He coaches at Morgan Park and he did a big job with helping Coach Murph reach out to him, saying there’s a talented kid that is at Indian Hills,” Johnson said.
A two-time state champion at Morgan Park, Johnson landed at Northern Arizona in his own unique way. Despite there being 13 D-I schools in the state of Illinois, many at a similar size and conference to that of Northern Arizona, Johnson felt he was underrecruited.
With former Lumberjack Jaleni Neely -- a Chicago native himself from Simeon on the South Side -- on the roster, Johnson ended up at Northern Arizona thanks to some convincing it would be the right option.
“I felt like people overlooked me. I kind of wanted to get away and once I come back, I can to show people I am doing something with myself,” Johnson said. “I am capable of playing at the Division 1 level and just proving everybody wrong.”
Saturday’s home game against Southern Utah (9-13, 3-8 Big Sky) marks the second meeting with the school both Johnson and Harris started to break out against. Harris scored 19 points against the Thunderbirds after scoring six in the previous five games combined and has reached double-digits in six of seven since.
Johnson added 14 points in Cedar City, also starting a run of six double-digits games in the past seven, although the Lumberjacks lost 81-75 on Jan. 13.
Sitting two wins back of Southern Utah, Sacramento State and North Dakota with just seven Big Sky games remaining, Saturday provides Northern Arizona one of the dwindling opportunities to move out of 12th in the conference.
The Lumberjacks have just three more games in Flagstaff while still searching for their first D-I home victory. Among the remaining games are road meetings at Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington and Idaho, all vying for a top-four finish in the Big Sky. The odd team out will likely end up as Northern Arizona’s first-round opponent in the conference tournament, set to begin March 6.
While Johnson and Harris’ recent production has been consistent, Anderson’s pending return from injury will add another man to a rotation that had been shrinking in past weeks.
Still Northern Arizona’s leading scorer at 12.4 points per game, Anderson will bring down the minute totals Johnson and Gino Littles have been playing recently. Littles averaged 33.4 minutes in the past eight games, with Johnson at an identical rate in the past five.
“(Anderson) has practiced all week and he has had a good week of practice,” Murphy said. “We are going to see how he does in the game tomorrow and give him a shot. He missed three weeks and he has had four practices, but we will see how he does offensively and defensively. He has been shooting the ball well -- hopefully that carries over well to the game.”