The old adage of college coaches wanting their teams to play their best basketball in March rings true for the Northern Arizona men and head coach Jack Murphy.
Fresh off a week during which Northern Arizona took the Big Sky’s No. 1 seed Montana to the last possession and in the next game upset No. 2-seeded Northern Colorado on the road, the Lumberjacks are playing up to the challenge of facing some of the best ahead of the Big Sky Conference Championship Tournament.
“I think that we have been playing some of our best basketball the second half of the season, and especially in the conference season even with the results on the scoreboard not always showing it,” Murphy said.
But before proving themselves against the top teams, the Lumberjacks have to take care of business in the eight-versus-nine-seed game. If Northern Arizona gets the victory, it would snap a four-year winless drought in the conference tournament for the team.
Eighth-seeded Northern Arizona opens with No. 9 Sacramento State in the first round in Boise, Idaho, at 8:30 a.m. -- a game which also marks the first time since 2014-15 the Lumberjacks were the better seed.
The regular-season series between the squads was a split, with the road team taking the wins. In Northern Arizona’s home loss to Sacramento State, the Lumberjacks nearly came back from 18 points down only to fall on a last-second layup by Joshua Patton -- who had a career-high night with 34 points.
A few weeks later in Northern Arizona’s win, Patton was kept in check. The big man was held to just six points and took only six shot attempts.
“We know they are going to be one of the more physical teams in the league; it's going to be a tough game on the glass rebounding the ball,” Murphy said. “Obviously the second game we did a better job defending Joshua Patton. He’s a big key to their team and a really good low-post scorer, so we have to do a good job on Patton. And with that being said, we can’t let their perimeter shooters hurt us."
Keeping Patton and the rest of the Hornets off the glass will be a bit of a challenge, as the team has the third-best offensive rebounding percent in the Big Sky (27.6 percent in conference play).
Northern Arizona is mid-pack in the Big Sky, giving up a 25.7 offensive rebounding percent in conference play.
“There are some things you can learn from the first two games but when the ball is tipped, it's postseason play and win or go home. Everybody is going to leave it all out on the floor,” Murphy added.
Northern Arizona forward Bernie Andre will spearhead the rebounding effort. The star sophomore was named the Big Sky newcomer of the year and earned a spot on the All-Big Sky third team behind a strong first year with the program averaging 13.6 points, 8.4 rebounds (third overall in the Big Sky) while shooting 45 percent from the field for the year.
The versatile forward has been one of the most productive rebounders in the Big Sky. For the year he ranks fourth in the Big Sky in defensive rebounding percent (26) -- where he ranks in the top 100 nationally -- and eighth in offensive rebounding percent (9.2) despite his lack of size.
Andre is just a handful of boards shy of cracking the top 10 for single-season rebounds. His 251 total boards are just eight shy of passing Kyle Landry for 10th all-time in Northern Arizona men's basketball program history.
HOW TO WATCH
Wednesday's game can be watched by streaming the game on PlutoTV channel 231 or fans can tune into 93.5 FM and AM 930 KAFF Country Legends for the radio broadcast.
Tipoff is set for 8:30 a.m.