FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona women's basketball team kept Northern Colorado – the highest scoring team in the early stages of conference play – at bay throughout the game on Saturday. However, the Bears scored just enough to squeak out a 69-66 victory over the Lumberjacks in the Walkup Skydome, sending NAU to 1-2 in the Big Sky and 5-9 overall. NAU's two losses this week were by a mere five points combined.
"I'm really pleased with how we came out to play today," said interim head coach Robyne Bostick. "We had been starting games a little slow, but we came out with energy. In the fourth quarter, fouls hurt us as did our defensive rebounding. We outrebounded them, but we gave up offensive rebounds at critical times."
Senior Brittani Lusain recorded her second double-double of the season, and 12th of her career, to lead the 'Jacks throughout the afternoon. She finished with a season-high 20 points and 10 rebounds – six on the offensive glass – and also added three steals to her line.
Sophomore Kaleigh Paplow made her first start of the season and responded with a season-high tying 11 points, including a perfect 5-for-5 showing at the free throw line, to back Lusain's efforts on the offensive end.
On a day when NAU's offense struggled at times, with the most critical span being a five-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, the Lumberjacks' defense kept them in the game against the conference-leading Bears. Northern Colorado entered the day averaging 89.7 points per game on nearly 50 percent shooting in its first three victories to open the Big Sky slate, but the Bears only shot 42.4 percent for the game and came up 20 points shy of their average. NAU shot 39 percent for the game.
NAU took a slim 53-51 lead into the final period, but were doomed by a five-minute scoring drought in which Northern Colorado was able to extend its lead from a single point to seven. Lusain broke the drought with a bucket, and redshirt junior Kenna McDavis followed with a jump shot to cut UNC's lead to 64-61 with 2:10 left in the game.
After the Bears answered with a basket, redshirt junior Olivia Lucero converted on a key three-point play with 19 seconds left to bring NAU within two. The 'Jacks remained down by a possession following Lusain's final field goal of the game with four seconds left, and after UNC split a pair at the free throw line, Lusain's desperation halfcourt heave was deflected as the buzzer sounded.
The teams entered halftime deadlocked at 31-all with the Lumberjacks riding a hot start behind the arc to carry them. NAU made 6-of-11 from long distance in the first half and actually outshot Northern Colorado at the break.
Senior Rene Coggins – who finished with nine points and led the team with a season-high six assists – knocked down her third three-pointer of the game to cap a rapid 8-2 start to the second half. NAU led 39-33 at the time and never trailed throughout the entirely of the third quarter as the 'Jacks made the most of the Bears' foul trouble making 9-of-12 at the charity stripe in the period alone to aid their efforts.
Despite coming up short on the scoreboard, NAU shored up its team performance on the glass by holding a commanding 42-31 advantage. The 'Jacks were previously outrebounded by a combined margin of 27 over their last two games. Behind Lusain, senior Bradlee Cotton had her finest effort of her career, corralling a career-best eight rebounds. NAU managed 15 second chance points to UNC's eight on the heels of 15 offensive boards, but surrendered four of the Bears' nine offensive rebounds in the pivotal fourth quarter.
NAU's defensive and rebounding efforts were outdone though by 17 turnovers, its highest total in five games. UNC capitalized to a plus-three margin in points off turnovers, coincidentally accounting the final margin.
"Seventeen turnovers were a little more than we've had the last couple of games, so we'll work on taking care of the ball a little better," Bostick said. "We've been to piece together one thing at a time, but we need to put it all together. Our rebounding and defense had been lacking, and today was better, so if we can add taking care of the ball we'll be in pretty good position going up to Portland State on Thursday."
The Lumberjacks will look to turn the tide on the road at Portland State next Thursday with tip-off scheduled for 8 p.m. Arizona time. NAU will close the week out next Saturday at Sacramento State.