POCATELLO, Idaho – With the final game of the first half of Big Sky Conference play Saturday at Idaho State, one of the developments on the Northern Arizona men's basketball team during league play has been the improved play of the Lumberjack post players.
"Since the Christmas break, we spent awful lot of time with our big players working on technique and confidence trying to get them to see they can do some good things if they simplify some of their moves," said Interim Head Coach Dave Brown. "It is an on-going process and something that takes a lot of practice and patience."
Junior Ephraim Ekanem, a 6-7 forward from Chino, Calif., has shown the most improvement of late, scoring a career-high 12 points at Weber State, including an 8-point performance in the first half that set an early tone in the game. He has posted back-to-back double-digit performances over the last two games for the first time this season and averaged 10 points and five rebounds in the last three contests.
"It is good to see Big E (Ephraim) responding and he has had some good games," said Brown. "He has a great touch around the rim and he is strong and quick enough that he can get in and get some shots up. We are trying to play off of that and he has done a great job."
Ekanem, who has scored 4.9 points in 19 games this season with 10 starts, joined the NAU program from Irvine Valley CC, where he averaged 8.3 points and 6.1 rebounds during the 2010-11 season. He was an honorable mention all-Orange Empire Conference selection after starting all 31 of Irvine Valley's games and helping the Lasers go 23-8 and make the Southern California Playoff Regional finals. He joined former junior college teammate Durrell Norman.
"Coming out of junior college, I wanted to go Division I," said Ekanem. "There were a couple of schools looking at me. I knew Durrell came here and I knew he would be here with me."
Ekanem credits Brown for his improved play.
"It has been working with Coach Brown," said Ekanem. "He has done a lot of individual one-on-one with me and the other bigs. We have improved our game. It feels good to be able to help my team and do the best we can to win."
Ekanem joins a post group including Max Jacobsen, Ben Olayinka, Gaellen Bewernick and Durrell Norman that is hard working despite the lack of overall size. Norman is fifth in the conference in rebounding at 6.5 boards per game despite being just 6-4, the ninth-best rebounding rate in Division I among players 6-4 or under.
"We have had good performances by Ben Olyakina and Gaellen Bewernick and seen Max Jacobsen develop, who has been blessed with great hands," said Brown. "If he can catch the ball around the paint, he is very effective with his hands and has got some good moves. We are working on him getting stronger and working on his feet. "
Jacobsen has scored in the last five games played, recording 17 points over a three-game stretch for his best collection of games this season. He suffered a sprained ankle against Montana State and is working with Athletic trainer Ryan Pinson to get back on the court maybe as soon as Saturday against Idaho State.
Bewernick is scoring 5.2 points per game and shooting over 57 percent from the floor. He went 4-for-7 against the Wildcats on Thursday, scoring eight points. Olayinka stepped in with Jacobsen hurt against Montana State, getting to the foul line and contributing seven points off the bench.
"It is a must win game," said Ekanem of the Idaho State game. The Lumberjacks are 1-6 in Big Sky play, trailing Idaho State by one game in the win column. The Bengals enter the game at 2-4 with a 5-12 overall mark.
"We have to practice hard, rebound, score and we are getting our offense together," said Ekanem.
Tipoff is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. from Holt Arena Saturday night. The game can be heard on the Lumberjack Radio Network on 105.1 The Big Talker and online via The Big Talker website. Fans can also catch the action via The Big Talker mobile app. It is also available with free video on Big Sky TV.