It sure seems like the Northern Arizona men's basketball team and UTRGV like playing 40-minute thrillers. Two days after the Lumberjacks survived a buzzer-beater to win in Texas, their last-second three was off the mark as the Vaqueros returned the favor, 82-80, on Monday night at the Rolle Activity Center. The loss snapped NAU's three-game winning streak and evened its record to 3-3, while UTRGV moved to 3-2.
Although the Lumberjacks had a chance at the buzzer to extend their win streak, a tough defensive first half proved to be decisive. The Vaqueros shot 62.1% in the first half, including 6 of 7 (85.7%) from deep, and outscored the Lumberjacks, 15-3, off turnovers in building a 52-40 halftime advantage.
"We urged the guys to play hard and keep their man in front, and to give up 52 points with a scouting report and 62 percent field goal percentage, you have to look in the mirror as an individual and as a coach," said coach Shane Burcar. "We made an adjustment at halftime and it helped a little, and we had a lead a couple of times. Give Rio Grande Valley all the credit. They were the tougher team tonight."
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Trailing by 12 at the break, NAU landed the first punch of the second half and tied the score at 59-59 with 13:21 to play on a three-pointer by sophomore Jalen Cone, who led the Lumberjacks with 29 points. From there, neither team led by more than four with the outcome coming down to the wire, just as it on Saturday in the first matchup between these teams when NAU edged out an 89-87 victory on South Padre Island.
NAU trailed 78-74 with under three minutes to go when redshirt sophomore Keith Haymon trimmed the UTRGV lead to one with a triple. After a Vaquero turnover, Cone hit a floater to put NAU on top, 79-78, with 1:16 remaining, only for UTRGV to answer with a bucket.
On the next possession, redshirt freshman Carson Towt was fouled on a dunk attempt and proceeded to hit one of two at the line to tie the score at 80-80. UTRGV would run the clock down before Justin Johnson missed at the rim, only for Donte Houston Jr. to clean up with the go-ahead putback with 3.5 seconds left.
Down by two, the Lumberjacks got the ball ahead to Haymon, who had a shot at the game-winning three from the win, but it would prove to not be NAU's night.
With a better defensive showing by NAU in the second half, UTRGV's field goal percentage for the night closed at 52.7%. Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks, who made 14-of-30 after halftime from the field, shot 42.6%.
Both teams finished tied on the glass with 33 rebounds apiece, and while NAU made 13 threes, the Lumberjacks also attempted 40 -- their most three-point attempts in a game in over two years -- for just a 32.5% clip.
"We didn't settle and I thought we took great shots," Burcar said. "Out of those 40, let's take four out of the equation, so we had 36 great shots from really good shooters. It's part of the deal and there are nights like that, and if our guys are making shots it's a different outcome. But I told the guys that if we're not making shots, it's 32-28 and not 52-40 (at halftime)."
Cone shot 10 of 21 from the floor, 4 of 11 from three, and made all five free throw attempts to reset his career-high for the second consecutive game at 29 points. Redshirt junior Nik Mains and Haymon also both hit four threes, finishing with 17 and 15 points respectively.
Towt paced NAU with nine rebounds, and sophomore Isaiah Lewis was right behind with a season-high eight. Towt also led the team with five assists.
The Lumberjacks scored the first five points of the game and led until UTRGV took the lead at 11-10. NAU responded with the next six points, three on a Haymon triple and three by Mains at the charity stripe, and it remained tight with 5:20 remaining before the half. A pair of free throws by Lewis pulled NAU within 35-33 before UTRGV closed with a 17-5 run.
NAU quickly sliced the deficit in half with a 6-0 run in the first two minutes of the second half and pulled even on Cone's jumper at 59-59. A three by Haymon gave the Lumberjacks their first of two one-point leads in the half at 66-65 with under eight minutes to go, but they could not sustain the advantage and spent most of final seven minutes chasing the Vaqueros.
Next, NAU hosts Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday in the Rolle Activity Center.