Inconsistency has been the concern for the Northern Arizona men’s basketball team for much of the season, but with one game left on the regular-season slate, there is some confidence coming from the program.
Despite the team’s struggles -- just 9-20 overall and 7-12 in the Big Sky, a mark good for ninth as of Thursday's press time -- Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy said following practice Thursday that he thinks his team is peaking at the right time.
The Lumberjacks have dropped their past three games, with close losses to Montana State on Saturday and Montana on Monday.
Northern Arizona had a shot late to upset the conference-leading Montana Grizzlies, but the Lumberjacks failed to convert. It was an evenly played game for the most part, as Northern Arizona took a lead into the half -- just like it did in the two teams' Big Sky opener in the Walkup Skydome.
Montana came back after trailing from the start of the second until the 3:26 mark after hitting a 3-pointer to break a 58-all tie. The Griz led the rest of the way to avoid an upset -- taking a 66-64 win -- withstanding some clutch 3-pointers by Northern Arizona guard Luke Avdalovic.
Although still a loss, Monday’s game showed a bit of growth out of a young and inexperienced Northern Arizona team.
“I think that we have been building toward this all season long -- even in the losses we’ve been progressively getting better,” Murphy said. “I think obviously we played really well at Montana and we shared the ball, especially toward the end of the first, but even when they punched us in the mouth. And when you’re up at halftime in Montana, they want to take over the second half, and we didn’t really let them do that. We always had a response.
"I thought the resiliency of our group showed in that game and it showed all year long. We just have to finish possessions on the glass and keep teams out of transition.”
For most of the season, the Lumberjacks struggled to keep teams from going on scoring runs that would inevitably keep the Lumberjacks at bay. On Monday, it was more that the team couldn’t finish in a tough environment on the road.
But for a young team, which KenPom.com has ranked as the 330th most inexperienced team in the NCAA, losses such as Monday are a step in the right direction.
“When you have a young team, you’re going to go through spurts, ups and downs. And we’ve seen that with our team,” Murphy said. “We’ve played Montana four halves of basketball now and we’ve beaten them in two halves. … We’ve known this about our team all year long, it's just about getting that consistency, and the guys are maturing in the way they are handling losses and preparing for games.”
Other than an early-season win over Nebraska Omaha (19-10, 13-3 Summit League), the Lumberjacks haven’t had any other wins over teams ranked in the top 200 of KenPom.
Competitive games against Montana (No. 140 on KenPom) and Santa Clara (No. 178 on KenPom) have shown how well the Lumberjacks can play. But the Lumberjacks have also lost to lowly San Jose State (4-25, 1-16 Mountain West) and have dropped games despite holding leads.
Northern Arizona will close out the regular season with a road matchup with Northern Colorado (20-9, 14-4 Big Sky) at 5 p.m., Saturday in Greeley, Colorado. Northern Arizona guard Ted McCree is day-to-day after missing each of the past two games, and Murphy said he is unsure if McCree will be able to play Saturday.
Following Saturday’s regular-season finale the Lumberjacks will know their seeding in the Big Sky Conference tournament, which begins Wednesday in Boise, Idaho.