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NAU falls behind by 22, can't climb out of hole after disastrous start against Idaho State
IDAHO STATE 76, NORTHERN ARIZONA 70

NAU falls behind by 22, can't climb out of hole after disastrous start against Idaho State

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The first nine minutes of Saturday’s Northern Arizona men’s basketball game in the Rolle Activity Center were about as bad as any team could start a game.

The Lumberjacks scored just six points, allowed 15, and had about as little offensive rhythm the team has had all season. Cameron Shelton, who leads the Big Sky Conference in scoring, had little to zero room to work.

Playing without sharpshooter Luke Avdalovic due to a concussion that was suffered a minute into Thursday’s game, the Lumberjacks were forced to settle for contested and rushed shots at the end of the shot clock, and only found scoring from freshmen Carson Towt and Wynton Brown Jr. Northern Arizona missed 11 shots in the first nine minutes, made just two from the field and turned the ball over four times. It took four minutes for Northern Arizona to find its first points of the afternoon.

Oh, and Lumberjacks head coach Shane Burcar was called for a technical foul at the 11-minute mark not long after a turnover by his team turned into a highlight alley-oop for Idaho State forward Malik Porter.

The Lumberjacks dug too large of a hole to claw out of, losing to Idaho State 76-70. Northern Arizona falls to 3-8 overall and 2-3 in the Big Sky.

There was obvious and visible from frustration from Burcar during the start of the game, and some postgame in the Zoom press conference, something that he hasn’t let be shown much in his season and a half as head coach.

"Yeah, I was frustrated," Burcar said. "I'm sick and tired of players not doing their jobs. I'll take all the blame, this is on me, but at the same time these are young men who we are saying to, 'No splits.' We are (asking) them to do the game plan. I told those guys they need to look in the mirror and make sure they are executing. It is nothing personal, it's a matter of fact. ... So I was frustrated. I am sick and tired of that."

Idaho State outscored Northern Arizona 29-13 the final 9:53 of the first half to take control of the game, leading 46-25 at the break. Idaho State shot a blistering 18 of 26 from the field in then opening half, getting open looks against soft defense. At one point, guard Austin Smellie -- who scored a season high 16 on 6-of-6 shooting in the first 20 minutes -- had a few seconds to let off a wide-open 3.

Northern Arizona shot just 7 of 21 from the field and turned the ball over 11 times, leading to 15 points for Idaho State. Shelton got his scoring going eventually, finishing with 10 in the first half and 28 for the game. But he didn’t get much help. All other Lumberjacks shot 4 of 15 combined from the field in the first half.

"I don't have an explanation for it," Burcar said of the slow start. "We absolutely did get outplayed. ... As a matter of fact, they are better than us. That's the bottom line."

The ingredients were there for a blowout. It looked like it was going that way, then something clicked once the second half started.

"I don't know what flipped," Burcar said. "All we said at halftime was we needed to just pick away. ... I don't know if they took it to heart; like I said I wasn't personal with them just a matter of fact. I think we have a good culture on our team, and I was just being honest with them. ... Hopefully they took it to heart."

The team played with more urgency, more energy and -- frankly -- just played better than it did the first 20 minutes. The defense was more active and the offense went on a roll hitting 15 of 20 over the first 14 minutes of the second half, eventually cutting the 20-point deficit to 63-57 at the 6:06 mark.

But it still wasn’t enough. The Lumberjacks cut the Bengals' lead down to 68-65 at the 1:59 mark after Shelton found Keith Haymon trailing behind him for an open 3-pointer and from there Smellie hit a pair of back-breaking triples to put the game away and save his team from blowing a 22-point lead. Shelton missed two would-be game-tying 3s in the final 40 seconds -- both on the same possession.

The Lumberjacks shot an even 50% from the field for the game -- 18 of 29 from the field in the second half as they tried to mount the comeback. Idaho State ended at 53.8% and shot just 10 of 26 from the field in the second.

In addition to Avdalovic's injury, forward Nik Mains suffered an apparent right leg injury near the end of the game. His status for next week is unclear.

Breakout Brown

Brown finished Saturday's game with 15 points on 5-of-8 field goal shooting off the bench. He hit 5 of 7 from the foul line, added in six rebounds and was active making nice plays throughout his 24 minutes on the court.

He made some good plays, like timely backdoor cuts for easy dunks and layups. But also some bad, like a blown closeout on Idaho State guard Tarik Cool, who drained a triple as the shot clock expired.

Those type of sequences are expected out of a true freshman playing his first real college basketball minutes, Burcar said.

"At this point we just want guys who work hard," Burcar said. "Right now the results may not be there as far as wins and losses, but this is a big-picture job right now."

Brown played more minutes than sophomore Isaiah Lewis and redshirt junior Jay Green combined.

Shelton’s streak

While the losses are beginning to mount, Shelton remains the bright spot. The lefty guard extended his streak of 20-point games to eight after the 28-point showing against Idaho State. 

Bengals pounce

Including the two wins by the Idaho State women's basketball team over Northern Arizona Thursday and Saturday, Idaho State swept Northern Arizona in college basketball this week. It is the first time Idaho State has swept a Big Sky four-game week since 2017-18. 

Next up

The Lumberjacks get Montana next week up in Missoula on Thursday and Saturday. Idaho State will face Sacramento State the same days at home.

Lance Hartzler can be reached at 556-2251 or at lhartzler@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @lance_hartz.

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