It’s been a struggle for Northern Arizona to return to the success of the 2014-15 season, and Monday night’s home opener hit the lowest of the Lumberjacks’ recent lows.
Falling 82-70 in the Rolle Activity Center, Northern Arizona (0-2) allowed the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Prescott Eagles (4-1) to win their 16th game in program history in the Lumberjacks’ home opener.
With the NAIA program starting in 2015, the Eagles finished 4-20 in their inaugural season, improving to 8-18 last year. While Eagles head coach Eric Fundalewicz wouldn’t say it was the greatest win in the program’s short history, saving that honor for the team’s first in 2015, he said it obviously ranked right up there.
“I think it shows our progress. These guys, almost three years ago, came in here and there was a plan in place for us every single year for where we were going to be and what we were going to do,” Fundalewicz said. “I’ll be honest with you, we expected it but I don't think it was the reality. To come in here and to be able to do this, I think the confidence with these guys is going to be through the roof.”
Meanwhile for Northern Arizona, the loss likely ranks as one of the worst and most improbable in school history. Coming off an 101-67 loss last Friday in Tucson to No. 3 Arizona, where the Lumberjacks showed promise as they tried to recover from a combined record of 14-48 the past two seasons, Northern Arizona hoped for a similar result to 2015 when it beat Embry Riddle 90-57.
“We came out. got up 16 and kind of let off the gas. I’m struggling right now figuring out who to play in what situations -- we have so many guys and I think that was affecting guys too. It’s on me, it's imperative on me to figure out roles better,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy. “We need to continue to work on our defense, I thought that we played hard and we played well at Arizona and tonight it was almost a complete opposite.”
Leading 25-9 thanks to runs of eight and nine straight points, Northern Arizona appeared well on its way to a victory after nearly 12 minutes of play. However, just 15 more points in the final portion of the first half allowed Embry-Riddle to creep back within four, 40-36, at halftime.
The Eagles immediately jumped on the Lumberjacks after the break, as former Northern Arizona walk-on Jaran Hoover hit a jumper less than a minute in, with Ryan Skurdal’s 3-pointer and Gilbert Ibarra’s layup putting Embry-Riddle ahead 43-40.
Embry-Riddle played just three players standing 6-foot-6 or taller in Flagstaff, while six of Northern Arizona’s 11-man rotation are listed at least 6-foot-7. However, it was the Eagles and 6-foot-5 guard Nick Johnson who dominated the boards, outrebounding the Lumberjacks 41-36.
Johnson grabbed 14 on his own, including four on the offensive end, while no Lumberjack surpassed double-digits. With Northern Arizona’s poor shooting in the second half, rebounding became imperative, as the Lumberjacks hit just 7 of 27 from the field, including a 1-of-11 performance from 3, in the final 20 minutes.
Scoring 30 points in the half, Northern Arizona kept the deficit in single digits thanks to 15 second-half free throws, though the total came on 22 attempts. The Lumberjacks went the final 3:12 of the game without making a field goal, as Chris Bowling’s 3-pointer stood as the only make in their final 12 attempts. Bowling finished as Northern Arizona’s leading scorer with 16 points, but 13 came in the first half before his late 3.
However, the run that truly doomed Northern Arizona came earlier in the half. After taking a 50-48 lead on a layup by Malcolm Allen with 13:47 left, the Lumberjacks would go more than seven minutes without another field goal as the Eagles took a 63-58 lead.
“Second half, we only had around four assists and I believe 10 or maybe nine turnovers,” Murphy said. “We are a better ball handling team than that, we can move the ball better than that. Guys tried to win it by themselves attacking; we have to play together as a team.
“We don’t have the individual guy that can take over a game like we may have in the past. Our whole process and our whole team relies on unity and playing together,” Murphy added. “I think tonight was a good indication of how or what can happen when we try to do it as individuals.”
Amidst Northern Arizona’s offensive struggles, former Bradshaw Mountain Bear Gilbert Ibarra took over and torched the Lumberjacks. Scoring 16 of his team-high 20 points in the second half, Ibarra hit a pair of 3-pointers to turn Northern Arizona’s 53-50 lead into a 56-53 advantage for the Eagles.
The Lumberjacks would tie the game once more, 63-63 with 6:00 left, but the Eagles never trailed after Ibarra’s shots.
“You have some kids that have those ambitions and those dreams of going to a Division I school and being able to play,” Fundalewicz said of the 2,400-student university. “The guys we have, they are academically driven and there’s a reason they are at our university. They are coming to be engineers, they are coming to be space physicists, they are coming to be pilots.”
Adding that he was simply thrilled to draw attention to Embry-Riddle’s budding program, the win came as a success story for Fundalewicz himself. A graduate of Northern Arizona, Fundalewicz coached at Yavapai College before the basketball programs were cut, and returned to his alma mater in 2011 as a member of then-women’s basketball coach Laurie Kelly’s staff.
“I have nothing but love and respect for Murph, (former coach Mike) Adras and all the people before them and all the people I was with,” Fundalewicz said. “I always want to see them succeed, but obviously not when they are playing against me. Coming in here, it is huge to step on this court and get this win in Flagstaff in front of my family and friends, the team’s family and friends, and even friends that I have from Flagstaff that I went to school with here. It means a lot to be able to come up here and be able to get the win.”