Outscored by 15 points during a six-minute stretch spanning the end of the first half and start of the second, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks watched their season come to a merciful end Tuesday afternoon.
Eliminated in the first round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament, 82-59, by the No. 5-seeded Northern Colorado Bears (21-11), the No. 12-seeded Lumberjacks (5-27) capped off their year with another disappointing result. Now a combined 19-75 in the three seasons since their school-record win total of 23-15 in 2014-15, the Lumberjacks will enter another offseason seeking answers after setting the school record for losses in a season at 27 and tying the Big Sky Conference mark.
“It’s hard. You see guys like Corey (Brown) and Isaiah (Thomas), they have never really tasted strong success at NAU with the team,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy. “They haven’t been part of a winning team over a long stretch. The hardest thing to do is to teach winning. That's why it is so important we build off of small victories from this season, carry that forward and play with a chip on our shoulder going forward.”
The Lumberjacks' final game of the year ended without much of a run in the second half at the Reno Events Center in Reno, Nevada. Northern Arizona was outrebounded 41-30 and allowed 27 points off of their 18 turnovers, while scoring just seven points on 15 Northern Colorado turnovers.
Northern Arizona kept its first-round game close in the early going, tying the score once and remaining within a few possessions though never managing to take a lead. Trailing 27-23 with 3:55 left in the first half following a pair of free throws by JoJo Anderson, Northern Arizona's early run came to a halt as Northern Colorado's Jordan Davis scored seven straight points.
Putting the Bears ahead by double-digits for the first time in the game, Davis eventually finished with a game-high 21 points and connected on 8 of 13 from the field.
A jumper by Karl Harris temporarily brought the Lumberjacks back within nine at 34-25, but his basket would be just one of two for more than six minutes of play as the Bears took over.
Northern Colorado outscored Northern Arizona 11-3 in the opening two minutes of the second half and the lead never dropped lower than 13 points for the rest of the game. Reaching 29 points, 76-47 with 3:47 left, the Bears' lead only dropped as Carlos Hines closed out his freshman year with seven points in the final 2:37.
The final score resulted in Northern Arizona’s sixth loss by at least 17 points in the Big Sky this year, all coming against teams in the top five of the conference. Another eight of the Lumberjacks’ 17 conference losses came by six points or less, including a pair in overtime.
“You look at some of our close losses the past couple years. You lose close games at Santa Clara to begin last year or Tennessee State, or this year you lose a close game to Irvine,” Murphy said. “You just don’t know the mental fight that does to guys.”
Three Lumberjacks reached double figures, with Brown leading Northern Arizona with 13 points, followed by 11 for Harris and 10 for Torry Johnson. Gino Littles went scoreless in 25 minutes in his final collegiate game.
Brown quietly finished his junior season as Northern Arizona’s top player in Kenpom.com’s offensive rating statistic. With Brown ranking second in the Big Sky with a 60.5 shooting percentage from 2-point range and his effective field goal percentage reaching 60 percent for the first time in his career, Brown finished at 104.1 in offensive rating. Isaiah Thomas’ 100.5 and Anderson’s 100.6 were the only other two ratings to break the 100.0 mark.
“Sometimes the light bulb goes on for a guy after his junior year, sometimes it is after his freshman year or sometimes they come into college already raring to go,” Murphy said. “We have a bunch of guys that are talented that need to believe how talented they are and obviously need to continue to work and get better.
“They are really good building blocks,” Murphy said of Brown and Thomas, who finished with the Big Sky’s second-best block percentage in conference play. “You can add Brooks (DeBisschop) in there, who developed into a really strong rebounder.”
Hitting just 52.9 percent from the free-throw line on 17 attempts and only 4 of 13 from the 3-point line, much of Northern Arizona's scoring production came from 2-point range, leading to a 32-24 advantage in the paint.
However, Northern Colorado finished 14 of 31 from beyond the arc and 12 of 18 at the line, and Anthony Johnson scored 17 points, going 5 of 7 from 3 in just nine minutes on the court. Andre Spight was limited to just 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting from the field, well under his season average of 22.1, which tied for the Big Sky lead.
Raking 340th in turnover percentage, a year after sitting 302nd in the stat, Northern Arizona’s turnover issues the past two seasons have hindered its offense’s ability. Similarly, Northern Arizona’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating actually finished as the third best in Murphy’s tenure, primarily hindered by another season struggling to defend the 3-point range. Opponents hit 39.4 percent from 3 against the Lumberjacks, with 36 percent of their points against Northern Arizona coming from the perimeter.
Consistently inconsistent, Northern Arizona saw six different players produce 20-point games at one point in the season while only two averaged double digits. Johnson finished with the team lead at 11.5 per game, followed by Anderson’s 11.1, while six players finished between 8.2 and 5.2 points per game.
“You have got to be able to have the last shot not matter and know you are going to make the next one,” said Murphy, as he hopes to build better consistency going forward. “That’s a constant battle and that’s my job ultimately as the head coach.”