Despite a pair of big losses early in Big Sky play, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks sit among a cluster of schools with one or two conference victories.
While Northern Colorado -- the preseason favorite in both the coaches and media polls -- sits at 4-1, tied with Montana and one win ahead of Weber State and Portland State at 3-1, the other eight teams all sit between 2-2 and 1-4.
“We feel that we probably should be 2-2 with the Montana game, but with the results from last night with Northern Colorado getting beat and Montana State getting beat at home, I think it just speaks to the parity within the conference," said Lumberjacks head coach Loree Payne. "On any given night, anyone can beat anyone.”
With just one game set for the week, Northern Arizona can leap a few schools and move as high as a tie for sixth with a home victory. While the Lumberjacks were idle Thursday, the conference leader suffered its first loss of the Big Sky season.
Northern Colorado fell on the road at Weber State, who in turn lost a week prior at Northern Arizona. Meanwhile Montana, which Northern Arizona nearly beat to open the conference schedule, moved into a tie atop the Big Sky with its home victory against Sacramento State, dropping the Hornets to 1-3. While Northern Arizona, Southern Utah and Sacramento State all sit at 1-3 tied for eighth, North Dakota is at the bottom with a 1-4 record.
“I feel like the best is yet to come for us and we still have a lot of conference play left,” Payne said. “If we can start putting together two halves in one game, I think we will have some success. It is about the teams that get hot at the right time, and I’d much rather be hot come February and March than early in non-conference play.”
Swaying the game in the Lumberjacks' favor, the Thunderbirds rank as the worst 3-point shooting defense in the Big Sky and sit 334th nationally with opponents making 36.3 percent.
The number bodes well for Kenna McDavis, whose 3.1 3-pointers per game and 37.9 percent from behind the arc had helped pave the way for her to lead the Lumberjacks with 16.2 points per game, ninth in the Big Sky.
“We stay in the flow of our offense, I think that our offense provides great opportunities for our 3-point shooters to get looks,” Payne said. “At the end of the day, we have got to knock them down; that’s been the struggle for us, especially at Montana State, Idaho State, and we didn't shoot the ball that well in the first half of Weber State. We need to get consistent in making those shots.”
Northern Arizona also statistically leads Southern Utah in scoring per game, shooting percentage and rebounding. While the Thunderbirds knocked off the Idaho State Bengals (10-5, 2-2) last week, the win was just their second of the season with double-digit losses in their three other conference games.
Payne said it will come down to what version of the Lumberjacks show up on Saturday. The Lumberjacks' two Thursday games within conference have gone well, with a 70-62 loss in overtime to Montana, a game where Northern Arizona led by 21 in the second half, and a 76-75 victory over Weber State (10-4, 2-1). Meanwhile, Saturdays have been a struggle with an 81-39 defeat at Montana State and a 75-55 loss at home to Idaho State.
“I think it is just kind of the weird way it has worked out. Both of our Thursday games have been comebacks, one a loss and one a win,” Payne said. “I think that just speaks to a growth area in our team that needs to happen, with being able to bounce back from an exciting game against Weber or a disappointing game against Montana.”