The Northern Arizona women's basketball found themselves down, but not out, and ultimately overcame adversity to notch a 74-69 victory over Sacramento State on Monday to advance to the Big Sky quarterfinals.
The Lumberjacks (13-17 overall) earned their first conference tournament win in a dozen years with a gritty effort and 18 points each from redshirt sophomore Jacey Bailey and sophomore Khiarica Rasheed.
"We showed a lot of resilience today," said head coach Loree Payne. "The first game (of the tournament), there's always nerves and we showed that early on. But we settled in toward the end of the third quarter into the fourth quarter and the camaraderie of this team is pretty phenomenal. It's March Madness, survive and advance, and that's what we did today."
NAU will next play Idaho, the No. 1 seed and regular season champions, on Tuesday at 11 a.m. By snapping their seven-game skid in the conference tournament, the Lumberjacks extended their current winning streak to four games. NAU last won four in a row in 2007 – coincidentally, the last year the Jacks won a postseason game prior to Monday.
As was the case in both of their regular-season meetings with a total margin of victory of six points, NAU and Sacramento State played to a tightly contested game in the opening matchup of this week's Big Sky Championships. Neither team shot very well with Sacramento State outshooting NAU 34.3 percent to 33.3 percent, but the Lumberjacks won the final 10 minutes to overcome a 10-point deficit.
NAU outscored Sacramento State, 31-19, in the fourth quarter and did so without senior Kaleigh Paplow, who left the game with an injury with 6:35 remaining. At the time of Paplow's injury, the Lumberjacks trailed 51-49. However, NAU proceeded to go on a 12-2 run over the next four minutes to seize a 61-54 advantage that it would not relinquish.
Redshirt sophomore Brianna Lehew scored five points during the decisive run and tallied all eight of her points in the fourth quarter. Rasheed scored 10 of her 18 points in the final period as well, powering NAU to victory despite Paplow's absence.
"Bri has been playing really solid as of late and we asked her to step up," Payne said. "Morgan Gary came in and played some big minutes. Everyone stepped up when a player goes down and that's what you want to see out of a family. That fourth quarter was a big-time step for our program moving forward to rally together and have each other's backs."
"We did this for Kaleigh," Bailey added. "She couldn't play, so we all needed to do what we needed to do for her."
Despite leading 19-14 heading into the second quarter, NAU trailed most of the way until reclaiming the lead for good in the final five minutes of the game.
NAU had five different players score during an 11-2 run over a nearly three-minute stretch towards the end of the first quarter, to propel the Jacks to the early advantage. However, NAU went nearly four minutes without a field goal in the second quarter and made just one of its last seven attempts from the field to close the first half.
The first half was an offensive struggle for both teams with Sacramento State shooting 33.3 percent and NAU at 29.4 percent at the break, but the Hornets managed to take a 35-31 lead into the locker room.
After Rasheed pulled NAU within one less than a minute into the third quarter, Sacramento State went on an 8-0 run to open up a 45-36 advantage midway through the period. The Hornets held their largest lead, 50-40, late in the third quarter before a Paplow trey cut the Lumberjacks' deficit to 50-43 entering the final 10 minutes.
As the Lumberjacks were making their push, the Hornets struggled when it mattered most with just one field goal until the last minute of the game. Still, despite leading by as much as nine, 70-61, with 17 seconds left, the Lumberjacks had to hold off the Hornets at the end.
Sacramento State pulled within three in the final seconds, but freshman Regan Schenck calmly knocked down four free throws to propel NAU into the quarterfinals. NAU hit 17 of 23 free throws in the fourth quarter alone and finished the game with a 26-of-33 performance as a team.
"We felt like we weren't playing up to our potential," Rasheed said. "We wanted it bad and we prevailed."
The Lumberjacks kept a low turnover count (10) and outrebounded the Big Sky's top rebounding team, 49-45. Paplow posted a double-double with 11 points and a team-high 12 rebounds, while Schenck hauled in a season-high eight boards.
NAU and Idaho will play for a spot in the conference semifinals in the first of four quarterfinal games on Tuesday. Fans can catch the 11 a.m. tip-off on Pluto TV Channel 231 and watchbigsky.com and on the radio on 93.5 FM & 930 KAFF Country Legends.