FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona men's basketball team returns home for the first time in 19 days to host Northern Colorado Thursday night at the Walkup Skydome for the first of two key conference games this week. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:35 p.m. against the Bears.
"They are very important," said Head Coach Jack Murphy of this week's home games. "When you look at the group of teams between 4-4 and 2-6 in the standings, it includes everyone in the conference except Weber State and Montana. It is important not to lose home games. You have to hold serve at home and try to steal a couple on the road. We were fortunate to steal one on the road so far. We have to hold serve at home. The pressure is on us."
NAU (6-12) is coming off a 60-55 victory at Idaho State last Saturday. The Lumberjacks are tied for fifth overall with six teams in the conference standings at 3-5 including Northern Colorado. Weber State and Montana top the standings at 8-0 with Saturday's opponent North Dakota and Montana State tied for third at 4-4. The top seven teams from the regular season will advance to the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
The game against the Bears will be the first game since Dec. 5 with the NAU students back on campus. NAU played four games over the last month during the break following the fall semester.
"It is the ultimate for the home-court advantage," said Murphy of the student crowd. "When we had the students for the Loyola Marymount and Sam Houston State games, they filled both end zones and were loud and energized. They got our team into the game. They propelled us to a great victory over Sam Houston State and an unbelievable comeback against Loyola. We have missed them and I am sure they are excited to be back for the second semester. We are excited to have them back."
Northern Colorado (5-11, 3-5) comes to Flagstaff riding a two-game winning streak after posting wins over Portland State and Eastern Washington last week.
Junior Tate Unruh leads the Bears in scoring at 12.9 points per game. Unruh scored 21 points in the win against Eastern Washington and made 5-of-9 three-point buckets. He has posted four straight games with five 3-pointers made while scoring at least 19 points and is among the top 20 in the nation in both three-point field goals made and three-point field goal percentage.
"They are really well coached," said Murphy. "B.J. Hill does a fantastic job and he took the team to the NCAA Tournament two years ago. They are a team that is very dangerous because they can shoot the ball so well. They are shooting 37 percent from three as a team and last year they were one of the leaders in the country in three-point field goal percentage. When a team can shoot from three, they are very dangerous. You can never be up by too much. They are always a few possessions from tightening the game back up."
UNC's Derrick Barden is the third-best rebounder in the league at 8.6 boards per game.
"They have one of the best rebounders in the conference in J.C. Barden, who was a JC All-American," said Murphy. "He is a dangerous player. Tate Unruh is an outstanding perimeter scorer. You have to do a good job on him."
NAU has shot 50 percent or better in two of the last three games including a season-high 56.4 percent from the field against Portland State and 50 percent at Weber State. Overall, they have shot 80-for-161 (.496) over the last three games compared to their 40.9 percent (358-for-875) for the first 15 games.
"We are continuing to share the basketball," said Murphy. "Offensively, we are playing pretty well, moving the ball around and getting multiple paint touches and penetrations. On the defensive end, we have done a good job on some pretty high-level scorers."
Freshman DeWayne Russell continues to lead the conference in scoring and ranks among the top freshmen scorers in the nation. He is averaging 16.3 points per game entering the Northern Colorado game and has notched double digits in 17 of his 18 games. Overall, he ranks among the top 15 in the Big Sky Conference in seven different statistical categories.
"It is very important to protect the home court," said Russell. "We do not want to lose any home games so it is real big."
The game will be broadcast on FOX Sports Arizona Plus, Fox College Sports and NAU TV. The game will also be aired on the Lumberjack Radio Network on 105.1 FM The Big Talker and online on the Big Talker website and The Big Talker mobile app. The game can be seen online on Big Sky TV and on NAU-TV.
It is the first of three "School Nights". Students who attend Killip, Puente, Mount Elden and Thomas schools and their guests can buy a $5 game ticket. To purchase single game tickets for these games, click here or call 928-523-5661.