A low-scoring first half kept the game tight between the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks and the Idaho State Bengals Saturday night in Pocatello, but a second-half 9-0 run for the home team made the difference.
With Northern Arizona trailing by two just two minutes into the second half, Idaho State held the Lumberjacks scoreless for nearly three minutes and pulled ahead by 11. The Lumberjacks cut the lead back down to three in the final seconds, but a charge taken by the Bengals’ Geno Luzcando kept Idaho State’s Big Sky Conference record perfect with a 64-60 victory.
One week after upsetting Weber State in Ogden, Utah, and two days after an easy win over Southern Utah, Idaho State (8-6, 3-0 Big Sky) extended its win streak to four games while Northern Arizona (3-14, 0-4) dropped its fourth straight to open conference.
The Bengals opened the night on a 9-2 run spanning the first four minutes of the game before the Lumberjacks fought back with six straight points thanks to Gino Littles, Torry Johnson and Isaiah Thomas.
Both teams struggled from the field in the opening 20 minutes, with Northern Arizona hitting just 25 percent and Idaho State finishing at 31 percent. While the Lumberjacks never could take a lead, they cut the advantage to just one on three occasions in the first half before the final chance to tie.
Littles and Corey Brown paced Northern Arizona in the first half, combining to score 14 in the opening stanza and the team’s final 10 before the break. With Brown at six points and Littles at eight, the duo carried much of the load as their team entered the break down 26-20.
"We felt good at shootaround, we were making a lot of shots today and I just told the guys at halftime, shots were going to fall," said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy. "You just have to have confidence, so much of the offensive end is confidence."
While Brooks DeBisschop put in a layup and dunk right out of halftime, Idaho State responded with four points from Novak Topalovic, a 3-pointer by Blake Truman and a dunk by Luzcando. Jared Stutzman ended up as the Bengals’ leading scorer, putting in 18 points, but Littles finished as the game’s highest scorer, with a career-high 22.
"He's been working hard, he's our most consistent guy in terms of energy -- every day, just being a great teammate and being positive," Murphy said. "That paid off tonight and we need to keep building off of that."
Bouncing back from the first-half struggles, Northern Arizona ended the game hitting 39.3 percent from the field thanks to a 58.3 percent second half. Hitting seven straight shots from the field, and nine of their final 11 attempts, the Lumberjacks nearly fought back from a 61-51 deficit with 2:29 left on the clock.
Littles connected on a 3-pointer with 2:03 left before JoJo Anderson answered a pair of Idaho State free throws with a 3 of his own. Putting in three free throws 35 seconds later, Anderson trimmed the lead to 63-60 and Brown came down with a missed 3 from the Bengals with 23 seconds left.
"I think after those couple games he probably felt like he had to put everything on his shoulders and he doesn't have to press like that," Murphy said of Anderson, who finished with 11 points after struggling for a couple games following a 31-point performance against Montana. "He is much better when he lets things come to him."
However, a pass to Johnson in the corner with time ticking down ended in a turnover on the baseline. Avoiding one defender jumping off of a pump fake, Johnson put the ball down to dribble past with Luzcando cutting him off just outside the paint.
With Northern Arizona fouling after the inbounds pass, Stutzman hit 1 of 2 at the free-throw line to put the game away. While Idaho State ended up edging Northern Arizona from the field, shooting 41.8 percent, the Lumberjacks ended up with the advantage on the boards and points off of turnovers.
Northern Arizona’s 39 rebounds included nine on the offensive end, leading to 14 second-chance points. While each side committed 13 turnovers, the Lumberjacks put in 12 off of the Bengals mistakes while allowing just six off of their own.
"We just have to step up and do a better job at the free-throw line," said Murphy, with Northern Arizona hitting 12 of 20 from the line, including a 6-for-6 day by Anderson. "Last Saturday it was our Achilles heel and tonight it is our Achilles heel. We have to step up and make those free throws."
The Lumberjacks will have an extended break, with just one game next week in Cedar City at the Southern Utah Thunderbirds on Saturday at 2 p.m.