The Northern Arizona women's basketball team will see what it is capable of doing on the court after getting a little bit of rest, looking to regroup on Saturday at home against a struggling Southern Utah team.
After playing four games -- two home and two away -- from Saturday, Dec. 29 to Saturday, Jan. 5, the Lumberjacks had the entire week to prepare for the visiting Thunderbirds, who like the host are looking for their second Big Sky Conference win of the season.
"The break was big for us as a team," Lumberjacks head coach Loree Payne said Thursday. "I felt like we had a good practice, an OK set of practices, and then a team-bonding day doing team activities one of the evenings. So I definitely think it helped us this week to take a breath, recover and do what we need to do to win some Big Sky games."
In their last game, an 80-69 home loss to Idaho State, the Lumberjacks (5-8, 1-3) had their worst 3-point shooting effort of the conference slate yet, hitting 3 of 13 from long range against the league's worst defense against perimeter shooting. Also a possible effect from the tough scheduling, the team's leading scorer, Kaleigh Paplow, suffered a second straight game scoring just six points after putting up double digits the rest of the way.
Paplow is now averaging the Big Sky's second most minutes on the court at 38.6 per game.
But while Paplow's production has slowed on offense, a few of her teammates have started to gradually, if not still sporadically, began hitting shots.
After going through a bit of a slump toward the end of nonconference play, Lauren Orndoff is averaging 15.3 points per game over her first four Big Sky contests on 51.2 percent shooting. She's also at 50 percent shooting from 3 to start conference play. Jacey Bailey's production also got back into swing, as she is coming off three straight games scoring 11 or more.
Paplow and Orndoff's struggles with turnovers have been an ongoing issue for the Lumberjacks, but the team has cleaned up its mistakes as of late. Northern Arizona is coming off its best two-game stretch in terms of turnovers at 26 total combined. Meanwhile, Paplow and Orndoff have combined for a total of 11 turnovers in the last two outings.
"Our turnovers have been an issue for us, and I think about half of them are forced and half are own mistakes," said Payne, saying when her team gets tired, the uncharacteristic type of turnovers start showing up.
Defensive breakdowns have also been an area in which the Lumberjacks have not found consistency. Northern Arizona fell behind early and by as much as 18 points against Idaho State, allowing the Bengals to continue their trend of collecting buckets in the paint.
Overall, the Lumberjacks are allowing 72.2 points per game, the second most among Big Sky teams. Even with the upcoming opponent showing it has its share of weak areas, Northern Arizona needs to keep building on its recent improvements.
"For us it's going to be a battle of fundamentals," Payne told NAU Sports Information in a release. "Defensively, we have to work on our transition defense and offensively, we want to attack and score in transition."
Saturday's game is the conclusion of Northern Arizona's three-game homestand.
Southern Utah (4-9, 1-3) snapped a five-game losing skid in its last contest, beating Weber State 84-79 in overtime to cap off a two-game homestand in Cedar City. The Thunderbirds were perfect at 6 for 6 from the field in the extra minutes to seal the deal and beat a Wildcats team that Northern Arizona also has its lone conference win over.
Southern Utah's Harley Hansen led all scorers with 28 points to go with four rebounds in the OT victory. Meanwhile, teammate Ashley Larsen set a new career-high in scoring with 25 points and tied her career-highs in steals (4) and blocks (3).
Still, the Thunderbirds are averaging 61 points per game, the second-lowest amount in the Big Sky.
Over the last five seasons, the teams have usually split the regular-season series, with the Lumberjacks holding the slight advantage thanks to sweeping the Thunderbirds in the 2016-17 season.
Tipoff for Saturday's game in the Walkup Skydome is set for 2 p.m.
“I’ve heard the phrase that being mentally tough is the ability to focus when being fatigued," Payne said.
She expects to see her team buckle down when it counts on Saturday.
NAU started off last season's conference schedule off at 1-4 and will look to avoid doing so Saturday... Paplow is 39 points away from becoming the 17th player in program history to reach 1,000 career points... Southern Utah is 0-7 on the road this season so far... Only one senior is on the Thunderbirds roster, as both teams will have young squads meeting on Saturday.