By Steven Shaff, NAU Media Relations
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Last April, the Northern Arizona men's basketball team gathered in a conference room in the Walkup Skydome on a Sunday night. The purpose of the meeting was to meet their newly hired Head Coach Jack Murphy. For the group of rising seniors, the next hour would set the stage for the final season of their careers. The room was filled with anticipation and excitement.
"We hit the ground running as soon as he got in here," said senior guard Michael Dunn of Murphy. "He came with a mindset and plan for what he wanted this program to be and he has done an excellent job."
The final result will be determined over the next few weeks but the early returns have been extremely positive. As the five seniors on the Lumberjack squad play their final home games this week, they have bonded together to form a foundation that the future of the program will be built upon.
"I cannot think of a better group of men to have worked with throughout this year," said Murphy. "From the first night last April when we had our team meeting all the way until now, they have been rocks. They have been consistent with their effort and their message. They are a group of men that get the job done both on and off the court."
The Lumberjacks have shown significant improvement in 2012-13. Coming off a season that resulted in just one Big Sky win among five victories, Murphy has the Lumberjacks in the mix for a berth in the Big Sky Tournament. NAU has doubled its win total (10) and has won seven conference games, placing in a tie for fifth place entering the final two weeks of the regular season.
While Murphy recruited a group to join the roster this year and has six players signed for next season, the seniors have played a major role in the success and provided several highlights this season.
Gabe Rogers, who joins Luis Flores in their fifth season in the program, has had a big senior season. After struggling through a season that was hampered by an injury, Rogers has rebounded to lead the Big Sky Conference in scoring, moving into the career top-10 for points and among the all-time leaders in school and league history for three-pointers made.
He has scored in double figures in 22 of 27 games on the season, including 12 efforts of 20 or more points. He scored a career-high 35 points against North Dakota on Jan. 26.
"Gabe is one of the outstanding scorers in the conference," said Murphy. "He is a great human being who understands what he wants in life. He is already engaged and has a true heart on and off the court. He has embraced what we have been doing as a staff since day one."
Flores, a product of Scottdale's Coronado High School, has been a key contributor off the bench. He scored a season-high 11 points at Colorado, earning the respect of the coaching staff during the year for his unselfish attitude.
"Luis is a guy who has embraced his role this year," said Murphy. "There is no one more positive, focused on game plans and understanding opponents' tendencies. He is like having another coach on the bench. He does an outstanding job and it speaks to his high character and the type of family he came from. You have to give Luis all the credit in the world."
Ephraim Ekanem joined the program last season out of junior college and has provided key play in the post for the Lumberjacks this season. He has seen action in all 26 games with seven starts while averaging 3.2 points and 2.4 rebounds. He tied his career high for points twice during the season.
"Ephraim works hard every day," said Murphy. "Sometimes we have to slow him down a little bit because his excessive work can lead to foul trouble. He always has a positive outlook and attitude. He is somebody we look to on and off the court for leadership. He is a genuine personality. He means lot to this team and our staff."
Dunn, who started his career as a walk-on to the program, has become the pulse of the program with his play on the court.
"Mike personifies what hard work can get you," said Murphy. "He is a guy who showed up on campus as a walk-on. He works hard every day. He brings energy and effort. He's given us a huge lift on and off the court because of his leadership, energy and effort."
Dunn, who has scored around six points per game, has provided some of the special plays that have made his senior season memorable, winning a pair of games with his heroics.
The Chandler High School product made the game-winning basket at the buzzer to defeat Northern Colorado on Jan. 24 and hit the game-winning free throws with 4.7 seconds left in 61-60 victory at Sacramento State on Feb. 4. He also reset his career high with 17 points at BYU with a 7-of-9 performance from the field.
While Dunn has provided key highlights, guard Stallon Saldivar has continued his playmaking that has been showcased throughout his career as the director of the Lumberjack team. One of the all-time assist leaders in Big Sky Conference history, Saldivar is among the assist leaders in the Big Sky and Division I for the fourth straight season.
He has added a tremendous knack for rebounding this season that Murphy has praised all season. His ability to affect the game across the stat sheet resulted in the first triple double game in school history against Eastern Washington when he recorded 13 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
"Stallon gets every ounce out of his body," said Murphy. "He has the only triple double in school history. He keeps a positive attitude and provides great leadership. He has a great personality and really helps bring the team together on and off the court. I think a lot of guys look to Stallon for leadership and he has come through for us. Whether he was starting or not, his effort never wavered."
With the final two home games of their career on the schedule this week, the Lumberjacks have many memories to reflect on. Each has their own highlights and achievements but it has been team successes that resonated the most with many of them.
The victory over Montana State in the Big Sky Tournament two seasons ago was among the games remembered by this class. It was a victory that would propel the team closer to their goals of the NCAA Tournament that season.
"We had standing room only in Rolle and came back from a big deficit to move on," recalls Dunn. "It was a big game. I was real excited. I remember the feeling we had as a team after that knowing it could be a special year. It is something I held onto for a long time."
They have the same feeling this season.
"We want to get to the tournament and surprise some people," said Saldivar. "We have to focus on getting to the tournament first and then anything can happen from there."
No matter the final outcome this season, the five seniors have formed life-long bonds with each other and the school they have represented.
"(I will remember) the friendships we have built while I've been here," said Flores. "I feel like everyone that I played with here is my brother."
And for Murphy, the class will always be special in his heart.
"As their coach, I am going to be very proud to say from now until the end of my career that I was able to coach them," said Murphy. "They are much more than basketball players – they are great human beings."