MISSOULA, Mont. – One more win is all the Northern Arizona basketball team needs to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2011. But the Lumberjacks will face a tough task Saturday against Montana, who is playing for home court next week for the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
"We have nothing to lose," said Head Coach Jack Murphy. "They are the conference champion and were picked preseason No. 1. We were not supposed to be here. We should have fun with it and give it what we have."
The Lumberjacks were picked to finish last in the conference by both the media and coaches. After posting eight Big Sky wins, NAU could advance to the postseason tournament next week with a win or a loss depending on the outcomes of the games on Saturday.
NAU is tied for sixth overall at 8-11 with Sacramento State and Southern Utah. NAU would advance if the three teams finish in tie or NAU is in a tie with Sacramento State. If NAU and Southern Utah finish tied, the Thunderbirds would advance to the tournament.
Montana (18-1), Saturday's opponent, clinched at least a share of the regular-season title with a win over Sacramento State on Thursday. The Griz led by just three points with 4:12 to play, but pulled away late. Kareem Jamar scored 12 points with four assists for UM, which once again played without senior Will Cherry. Senior Mathias Ward, who has missed the last three games, is out for the rest of the season. Cherry is expected to return Saturday.
With one day and five games remaining in the regular season, five teams have clinched berths: Montana, Weber State, North Dakota, Northern Colorado and Montana State.
North Dakota (11-8) has secured the No. 3 seed and will play the No. 6 seed in a first-round game on Thursday, March 14. Northern Colorado (10-10) clinched a tournament berth Thursday with a win over Southern Utah. The Bears will either be the No. 4 or the No. 5 seed.
Southern Utah, Sacramento State, Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington remain in contention for the final two spots.
Sacramento State and Northern Arizona can both finish as high as fifth or not make the tournament, while Southern Utah can finish as high as sixth or not make the tournament. Eastern Washington is also still alive but needs to beat Weber State and get help to make the tournament.
Four games have implications Saturday. Southern Utah (8-11) is at North Dakota and Sacramento State (8-11) is at Montana State. Both are Saturday afternoon games. Northern Arizona (8-11) is at Montana and Eastern Washington (7-12) is at Weber State to close out the day with 7:05 p.m. tipoffs.
The Lumberjacks will look to rebound from their second consecutive overtime loss and third in Big Sky play against the Grizzlies. Murphy will again look to senior Gabe Rogers, who has been carrying the Lumberjack offensive load.
Rogers leads the team and the Big Sky Conference in scoring at 18.3 points per game (37th in Division I) and has scored in double figures in 25 of 30 games on the season, including 15 efforts of 20 or more points. He is also looking to become the first NAU player to lead the conference in scoring since Elloitt Jones led the Big Sky in scoring at 18.2 points per game in 1980-81.
"He is playing at an all-conference and player of the year level," said Murphy. "We are lucky to have him. We need to keep that going on Saturday by continuing to get him great shots. His teammates have done a good job of setting screens and finding him when he is open. And he is doing a great job of knocking them down."
Montana leads the all-time series 60-31 and holds a 33-10 advantage in Missoula. The Grizzlies won the first meeting this season in Flagstaff and have won three straight over the Lumberjacks and eight of the last nine. The last win by NAU in Missoula came in the 2007-08 season.
Mitch Strohman and Dave Brown will call the action on the Lumberjack Radio Network. The game can be heard 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.