One game into first-year head coach Loree Payne’s offensive system, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks showed they can find success with the current roster.
While the Lumberjacks dropped their season opener to the UCSB Gauchos, 96-93, Friday night at Rolle Activity Center, their three returners finished with double-doubles while working within their respective roles.
Senior Olivia Lucero scored a game-high 26 points on 11-of-22 shooting, while adding 11 assists. Four assists went to senior Kenna McDavis, who scored 21 points while hitting 5 of 9 from 3-point range with a game-high 13 rebounds. Kaleigh Paplow’s 10 rebounds, five on the offensive end, helped lead to her 16 points, with seven coming as second-chance scores.
“We are the most experienced on the team, and I think we are taking responsibility and ownership of that,” Lucero said. “Just being able to go out there and be aggressive every single offensive possession.”
After trading the lead back-and-forth, with the teams switching the advantage 16 times, the Gauchos pulled ahead 91-85 with a 3-pointer by Aliceah Hernandez with just 35 seconds left to play. Hitting 47.4 percent from the field for the game, the Lumberjacks connected on four of their final five shots in the last 24 seconds to chip away at the lead.
With UCSB hitting just 5 of 8 free throws down the stretch, baskets by Lucero, McDavis and Khiarica Rasheed gave Northern Arizona a chance at the tie on the game’s final possession. After inbounding the ball with six seconds left, the Lumberjacks’ final pass to Lucero came loose and the senior couldn’t get a clean shot off for the tie.
While Northern Arizona hit 7 of 18 from 3, 38.9 percent, UCSB’s early start from beyond the arc helped drive its offense. Connecting on 7 of 10 3-pointers in the first quarter, and finishing 14 of 30 from long range, 21 of the Gauchos’ 27 first-quarter points came on shots from outside.
“They caught fire, a team making 14 3s in a game. It’ll be good to watch some film, but I feel like a lot of them were contested and they were knocking down shots,” Payne said. “Obviously we need to take a look at that and figure out defensively how we could be a little bit better. I thought there was just a couple lulls defensively that put us in tough positions.”
Trailing 80-78 with six minutes remaining in the game, the Lumberjacks missed on two chances to tie it up. After trading baskets to trail 82-80, Northern Arizona again missed on two chances at the tie.
From there, UCSB 6-4 senior Drew Edelman scored six straight points for the Gauchos in a one-minute span. A graduate transfer from USC and a Big West Preseason All-Conference selection, Edelman finished with 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting and seven rebounds in 29 minutes.
Defending the senior for much of the day, Northern Arizona sophomore Peyton Carroll finished her first career start with 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 18 minutes.
“Peyton has developed so much since we took the program over and she’s only going to get better,” Payne said. “I think it’s hard when she has to go against a former Pac-12 player. That’s the toughest opponent that she’s probably going to go against all year, so for her it only gets easier from here is what we are trying to tell her.”
With McDavis, Paplow, Lucero playing between 37 and 39 minutes of the 40-minute game, Payne said she was thrilled with the team’s production early on in the offense, the next two days would be telling in seeing how the team responds.
“We really want to go deeper into our bench, it is just we have three very, very good, experienced players that we are very comfortable having on the floor,” said Payne, who added the grinding style of play from players like Paplow could wear the team out long-term. “We are still trying to figure out that next rotation, but you look at Olivia, Kenna and Kaleigh -- all had double-doubles tonight.”
Set to play Rice, who beat Grand Canyon 69-59 Friday night in Phoenix, on Sunday at 1 p.m., Northern Arizona will get a look at the grind ahead in the conference season. Picked to finish fifth in the Conference USA, the Owls will present a likely step up in competition.
While UCSB entered Friday picked to finish third in the Big West, with the conference’s RPI sitting just behind the 21st ranked Big Sky at 24th a year ago, Conference USA ranked 14th.
“We didn’t come away with the win, but we learned a lot, we grew a lot as a team,” McDavis said. “I think that a lot of our younger players grew some confidence. First-game jitters are out of the way, so we will be ready to go.”