An upset win over the conference’s second-best team is a good way to enter the Big Sky tournament.
That’s exactly what the Northern Arizona women’s basketball team got Saturday afternoon, taking down Northern Colorado 79-68 in the Walkup Skydome for a regular-season finale win behind one of the Lumberjacks' most complete games of the season.
A crucial part of the victory, which puts the squad at 12-17 overall and 8-12 in the Big Sky, was the defensive effort put on against Northern Colorado’s Savannah Smith, who came into the day as the Big Sky’s leading scorer at 23 points per contest.
While Smith did get her points, scoring 40 on Northern Arizona, it wasn’t easy, just as Lumberjacks head coach Loree Payne wanted it.
“Man, Savannah Smith, I don’t know the numbers she put up but she’s a heck of a player -- hands down the best in the league,” Payne said. “For us we had a game plan going in for every shot she takes to be tough. She hits them because she is such a great player, but I think we were really dialed-in and locked-in on everyone else.”
Payne’s game plan going into the finale was to trap and bother Smith as much as possible -- using a shadow and lockdown defense on the prolific scorer -- all the while shutting down Smith’s teammates as well. The Lumberjacks did not just make life difficult for Smith, who shot 12 of 31 from the field and 9 of 24 from 3-point range, but also the rest of the Northern Colorado offense.
Just one other Bear reached double-figure scoring while all players together outside of Smith went 13-for-31 shooting from the field.
“For us in this point in March, you do whatever you can,” Payne said. “You pull out all tricks, you throw the kitchen sink at them, and I felt like we did that tonight and it helped us.”
The Lumberjacks trailed for most of the first quarter, ending the opening period down 16-13. But a 7-0 run late in the second gave the Lumberjacks a 42-31 advantage heading into the break.
The second quarter was the difference-maker for Northern Arizona, as Lumberjacks senior Kaleigh Paplow scored 11 of her season-high 27 points in the period. In the final home game of her career, Paplow put together a dominant and all-around line of 27 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and two steals in 39 minutes played.
Already in the top 10 of most major statistical categories for Northern Arizona, Paplow moved into fifth on the all-time scoring list, passing Julie Hanks. Paplow now sits at 1,186 points for her career.
“It’s impressive for her to be in the top 10 in every single category that you can,” Payne said of Paplow. “It’s insane. She’s the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached in my entire career.”
The senior diverted praise following the game, saying she is just happy her team got the win heading into the Big Sky tournament. The momentum that her team has had is a bit different, and refreshing, for her, as the Lumberjacks have gone 34-85 in her four years with the program.
“It feels great, it’s something I haven’t experienced. Going into Big Sky tournament you want to be feeling good, coming off some wins -- which obviously we haven’t had in the past -- and we are a different team and we are ready to go,” Paplow said.
Khiarica Rasheed added 17 points, with 11 coming in the fourth quarter, helping her team seal the win late.
The Lumberjacks are locked in as the No. 8 seed and will face the No. 9 Sacramento State Hornets Monday at 1:30 p.m. in Boise, Idaho, in the 2019 Big Sky Conference Tournament opening round.
Taking a win over Northern Colorado was a major confidence boost for Northern Arizona, which enters the tournament as the higher seed in a game for the first time since 2007.
The Hornets, like the Bears, boast a high-volume scorer in Hannah Friend. The Hornets star has averaged 19.3 points per game -- third in the Big Sky -- and is a threat to score at all levels, including from well behind the arc.
Friend is shooting 28 percent from behind the arc, albeit on a high volume. She averages just fewer than seven attempts from deep per game and is hitting about two per game from her forward position. She has failed to hit double-digit scoring just once this season.
Payne said the team will need a light mentality shift when guarding Friend compared to Smith, as the two get their points in different ways. But the idea stays the same: use length and attempt to make shots as tough as possible.
“I think (today) was great practice, and Hannah Friend is a great player and shoots from about 8 feet behind the 3-point line,” Payne said. “We are going to have to be dialed-in defensively and kinda shake those nerves in the first game of the tournament and play the way we have been. If we do that, I think we are going to surprise some people in Boise.”