After completing a daunting end to the nonconference schedule and a challenging start to the Big Sky Conference slate against two Montana schools, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks find themselves in the same bitter spot as their next opponent.
The Weber State Wildcats bring to Flagstaff on Thursday a six-game losing streak, matching the length of the skid the Lumberjacks are currently on. Despite coming off losses, both teams hope the fourth-quarter positives from their defeats carry into the Walkup Skydome.
The Lumberjacks (4-7, 0-2 Big Sky) scored 32 fourth-quarter points in their last outing, an 80-70 loss to the Montana State Bobcats on Monday in Bozeman. It was the best quarter for Northern Arizona since scoring 29 in the third quarter on the way to a win over California Baptist in Flagstaff on Nov. 17.
"Montana is one of the toughest places to travel, so we are glad that’s out of the way, and now we get to come home, practice on our home court and really get the chance to fine-tune some things," Lumberjacks head coach Loree Payne said Wednesday, adding that the team is also glad to be home after playing about two weeks of away games.
Senior guard Jaiamoni Welch-Coleman recorded a double-double for Weber State as part of a Wildcats comeback attempt that fell short by five points against Idaho on Monday. Like Northern Arizona, Weber turned it on too late to start the week, scoring 35 points in the final quarter.
But both teams still couldn't get the right mix of offense and defense they have been lacking. Ending a three-game homestand, the Wildcats allowed 31 points in the fourth quarter against Idaho, and the Lumberjacks let Montana State score 27 in the final frame.
Northern Arizona and Weber both sit at No. 7 in offense for the conference after their first two Big Sky contests, each averaging 66 points per game. Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks, who allowed Montana State its second 80-point game of the season, have given up 79 points per game through the two-game stretch -- just outside the league's worst.
Weber State hasn't necessary slowed down its first two conference opponents, however, allowing Idaho to tally 79 after its 64-58 loss to Eastern Washington.
The remainder of Northern Arizona's three-game homestand appears reasonable, even as the Lumberjacks will have played four games in a week's span when it hosts Idaho State on Saturday.
Payne has mentioned before that the college schedule can be hard on young players, and it showed in the team's guard play. The lack of productive minutes from the position has stymied an offense that wants to push the pace of the game.
After struggling through the end of the nonconference part of the season, Lumberjacks sophomore guard Lauren Orndoff is showing signs of life again in shooting. Against the final four nonconference opponents, the 5-10 guard averaged 4.5 points per game, but she has turned on the switch, tallying a career-high 17 against Montana and getting 14 against Montana State.
While Orndoff is enjoying the start of the conference slate, fellow guards Caitlin Malvar and Regan Schenck have yet to find a rhythm. Malvar, who missed all of last year on transfer rules and dealt with an ankle injury to start the season, has put up just six points on 2-of-8 shooting from the field in the last two games. Schenck, a freshman, has contributed just eight points on 3-of-14 shooting during the stretch.
"We are looking for people to step up and be more consistent for us so we can get a consistent rotation. We’ve had a couple different starting lineups and we are just really trying to find that solid play," Payne said. "There are moments of greatness and then moments of our youth shining through.”
Weber's guards will present a challenge for Malvar and Schenck. While Jaiamoni Welch-Coleman is coming off her 28-point, 11-rebound performance, Emily Drake is averaging 11.1 points per game and holds a 30-23 assist-to-turnover ratio compared to Schenck's 24 assists and 41 turnovers.
Thursday's tipoff between NAU and Weber is set for 6:30 p.m.