After waiting 20 years to host the Arizona Wildcats in Flagstaff, Thursday’s result may prompt another hiatus in visits by Northern Arizona’s in-state rival to the south.
Knocking off a Pac-12 opponent for the first time in more than 20 years, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (3-4) handed the Wildcats (2-6) their sixth straight loss with an 84-66 victory at Rolle Activity Center. With a win against Arizona State in 1995 serving as the most recent victory against the nation’s premier western conference, Northern Arizona last defeated Arizona in 1988, also at home.
“I definitely knew we had the potential, but it took a lot of hard work in practices this week,” said freshman Lauren Orndoff. “We just knew what we had to do, and we came in focused and made it happen.”
In just her seventh game as the Lumberjacks head coach, Loree Payne led Northern Arizona to its most notable victory in recent memory using the gameplan that made her successful at Puget Sound.
With senior guard Olivia Lucero pushing the pace at the point throughout the night -- finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 40 minutes of play -- the Lumberjacks ran down the visiting Wildcats.
“I think it was around the second quarter, it is crazy because when you are going back in transition after we score, you can hear them breathing super heavily,” Lucero said. “And they don’t want to crash, move or cut. And they didn’t want to guard us; I think that was really apparent once we started gaining the lead.”
After losing the battle on the boards handily in the first quarter, Northern Arizona’s push to the lead coincided with an increased rebounding effort. Down 14-3 in rebounds after the first, the Lumberjacks trailed 20-15 on the scoreboard before turning the tide for the final three quarters.
Finishing just behind Arizona on the boards at 40-34, Northern Arizona won the rebounding battle 31-26 across the final 30 minutes. At the same time, the Lumberjacks beat the Wildcats handily from the field, finishing at 54.5 percent, including two quarters at or above 60 percent.
“I think they just realized we have to go get the ball, we have to box out. Arizona is incredibly athletic, so we have to go above and beyond to get those rebounds,” said Payne, adding that rebounding was a focus leading up to the game following a loss to Denver. “Once they got comfortable and confident in that, I think they were able to realize ‘hey, if we do the right things we will get the rebound.'”
Trailing 23-15, their largest deficit of the game with 9:40 remaining in the second quarter, the Lumberjacks pushed to take the lead once and for all before halftime. A 12-2 run, with five points from Kaleigh Paplow and four from Orndoff, put Northern Arizona in front 27-25.
The two schools tied three times in the second before Northern Arizona entered the break with a 39-37 lead courtesy of two free throws by Lucero two seconds before the horn.
Closing the third quarter on a 10-0 run, started by a layup from Orndoff, the Lumberjacks kept the Wildcats scoreless for the final 5:09 of the quarter. Orndoff finished with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists.
With three of the team’s four losses coming by a combined 15 points, Orndoff said the team wasn’t going to take its strong runs for granted.
“You never really know with games, especially with us. We have had a couple games where we have had it and then the other teams have taken the win,” Orndoff said. “I think us just staying consistent throughout the game, especially with rebounding, was key.”
Lucero and Orndoff started their seventh straight games this season, along with Paplow and Kenna McDavis, while Khiarica Rasheed started for the first time this season in place of Peyton Carroll. Paplow finished with 13 points and seven rebounds and McDavis added 14 points and six rebounds, while Carroll had a resurgent game off the bench at 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting in 19 minutes.
“Honestly, it probably helped Peyton tonight,” Payne said. “Coming out it just puts her in a different position to be able to play against the second set of posts that come into the game. If you come off the bench, you are either playing against the tired starters or whoever is their second post. I think it helps to gain that confidence and get that back and start hitting those shots and she did that tonight.”
Hitting just 3 of 18 in her past three games combined, Carroll’s performance aided the Lumberjacks to their dominance in the paint. Outscoring the Wildcats 40-24 inside and 14-8 off of turnovers, the Lumberjacks saw the whole roster push the pace down the court.
“Our posts did a really good job of running the floor tonight,” Lucero said. “Payton Carroll was awesome finishing inside and so was Khiarica, so I think we were really able to execute the gameplan tonight and it was really just a great team win.”
Northern Arizona remains at home for the next week with a Saturday afternoon game against Cal Poly before hosting another in-state rival in Grand Canyon Thursday at noon.