CEDAR CITY, Utah – The stretch run for the postseason and a berth in the Big Sky Conference Tournament starts Saturday for the Lumberjack men's basketball team. NAU opens the second half of league play at Southern Utah with tip off scheduled at 7:05 p.m. at the Centrum Arena.
Head Coach Jack Murphy's squad is 4-6 in the first 10 games, placing seventh in the conference standings. Nine teams are within three games in the win column as the race for the top seven spots looks to go down to the final weekend, March 7-9.
"I think we accomplished some of our goals in the first half and won some tough games," said Murphy. "We have beaten some of the teams in the upper half of the conference like Montana State and Sacramento State, two of our better wins. We have a road win at Idaho State. We would have liked to play better at home but moving forward we are confident we can compete with anybody in the conference."
Southern Utah defeated the Lumberjacks 90-77 back on Jan. 5. The Thunderbirds' Damon Heuir scored a season-high 30 points and was 6-for-11 from the field and 14-for-16 from the line with four three-pointers. Jackson Stevenett added 14 points, while Julian Scott had 13 off the bench. Wade Collie contributed 10 points in the game. The game featured a combined 58 fouls and 76 free throw attempts.
"They are really well coached by Nick Robinson," said Murphy. "They are one of the more physical teams in the league and foul more than any team in the league. We have to do a better job this time around of taking advantage of it. We have to attack the paint better offensively and do a better job of taking away the paint. We got spread out too much last game."
Saturday's game will feature the four top scorers in the Big Sky this season. SUU's Jackson Stevenett leads the conference with an average of 16.42 points per game while NAU's Gabe Rogers is second at 16.35; Heuir is third with 16.3 per game and NAU's DeWayne Russell checks in with 15.7 per game, good for fourth.
"They have two of the better offensive players in the league in Damon Heuir and Jackson Stevenett," said Murphy. "Both of them are leaders and do a great job in Nick's system. We have to be ready to guard those guys and be ready for anyone else on the attack."
The Lumberjacks start a four-game stretch over eight days at Southern Utah. NAU takes on Sacramento State on Monday before hosting Portland State (Feb. 7) and Weber State (Feb. 9) next week.
"We are excited about the four games in eight days," said Murphy. "At this point in the year, you want to be playing anyway. We had a good breather this week to get some time to rest and recuperate. The guys are focused for the second half and it is going to be fun."
Rogers is the reigning Big Sky Conference Player of the Week after averaging 31.5 points per game and shot .571 percent from the field as the Lumberjacks beat Northern Colorado and lost by two points to North Dakota.
NAU leads the all-time series with the Thunderbirds 13-8 but owns just a 3-6 record in Cedar City. NAU has won the last two meetings against SUU in Cedar City, the most recent coming during the 2002-03 season. SUU joined the conference prior to this season.
The Thunderbirds (8-12/6-5 Big Sky) have won three straight during their current home stand, including a 79-67 win over Sacramento State on Thursday night. That win moved SUU back into a tie with Montana State in third place in the Big Sky standings. SUU's last loss was at Montana State, 76-68 on Jan. 21. Since the loss SUU has snapped a five-game skid with a 76-63 win over Portland State, posted a 69-55 win over Eastern Washington and picked up the win over Sac State to avenge a 64-59 setback earlier in the season in Sacramento, Calif.