FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Down by as many as 24 points in the second half, NAU cut its deficit to just nine points with two minutes to play but could not get any closer as Sacramento State closed out a 78-68 win on Saturday night in the Walkup Skydome.
"It's unfortunate because this is what happened the last time we played this team," said NAU head coach Sue Darling, who's team trailed by 19 points earlier this season in Sacramento before a similar comeback fell short. "I thought we prepared very well during the week and I thought the team was ready but obviously we weren't. For the last 30 minutes of the game we won, but you have to play a 40 minute game to get a 'W'."
The Lumberjack rally was led by its bench and most prominently by sophomore forward Erikka Banks, who continued her recent superb play with her first career double-double with career-highs of 25 points, 14 rebounds, and seven steals off the bench. The NAU bench totaled 32 points and provided a spark in the second half to get the team back within striking distance.
"They were the difference in the game," said Darling of her bench. "If we only counted when those kids were in we would have won. I was watching and thinking 'this is the future', because it was all the young kids in the game and they were the ones that were delivering. That makes for a bright future, but I still have high hopes and huge expectations for this year's team."
With the loss Northern Arizona (7-18, 6-10 Big Sky) slipped one game behind Southern Utah for the seventh and final qualifying spot for the Big Sky Championship after the Thunderbirds upset Northern Colorado earlier Saturday. Sacramento State (15-10, 10-6 Big Sky) elevated itself into a tie with Idaho State for fourth in the conference standings.
Sacramento State outshot NAU 53.3% to 27.0% in the first half to jump to a big early lead. The Lumberjacks totaled only one made field goal outside of the paint in the first half as the visitors took an early 6-0 lead and reached a double-digit advantage at 19-9 with 11:20 left in the first period. The Hornet lead reached 17 points at 30-13 following a 15-4 run, and NAU got back within 11 with 1:33 to play before the Hornets ended the half with five more points to take a 41-25 halftime lead.
The Sacramento State blitz continued early in the second half with a quick 8-0 spurt to take a game-high 49-25 lead with 17:20 to play. The Hornets still led by 24 with 12:21 remaining and had a 21 point lead with 7:34 to play before NAU made its move.
The Lumberjacks went on a 6-0 run to cut their deficit to 15 and eventually extended to a 19-7 spurt over five minutes to get within a 75-66 deficit with 2:16 left. NAU was unable to get any closer, though, as the teams traded free throws and NAU still trailed by nine with 40 seconds to play before a late Hornet free-throw gave the visitors their final winning margin.
Junior Amanda Frost was the only other Lumberjack to finish in double-figures as she totaled 16 points and four assists – with all 16 points coming in the second half. Banks (11-of-14) and Frost (4-of-4) shot 18 of the 20 NAU free-throws in the contest as the Lumberjacks shot just 31.2% overall from the field while the Hornets shot 44.4% on the night. NAU did have a 49-47 rebounding edge with 22 offensive rebounds, 10 of which came from Banks. Sophomore point guard Fantasia Hilliard had 16 points to lead four Hornets in double-figures.
NAU plays its final road games of the regular season next week, facing Idaho State at 7 p.m. Thursday and Weber State at 8 p.m. Saturday.