Season is slipping away from NAU women’s basketball

Laurie Kelly is still searching for answers.

The head coach for the women’s basketball team at Northern Arizona University has been on a four-year search for the winning formula she used when she arrived at the Flagstaff school eight years ago.

That system brought back-to-back 20-win seasons in 2006 and 2007.  But the Lumberjacks haven’t fared nearly as well since; their 11 wins last year were the most in the last four years.  The year before, they managed just five wins.

And last night’s 74-56 loss to Eastern Washington extends this latest losing streak to eight games.  NAU hasn’t been able to put together more than two wins in a row as they’ve run up a disappointing 5-11 overall record.

But the loss to Eastern Washington, a .500 team on the season, signaled a let-down at a time when the Jacks were faced with a couple of critical home games they needed to win.  They lost Thursday to Portland State.

Last night they turned the ball over 20 times in the first half alone, a season’s worst in that category, as the Eagles jumped to a 35-20 lead at the half.  By game’s end they had coughed up 31 total turnovers, which Eastern capitalized on for 28 of their points.

“We are just not playing good fundamental basketball,” said Kelly after the game.  “We were that great fundamental team a month ago and I don’t know where we lost that.”

Amy Patton, the junior from McClintock High School in Tempe, carried the scoring load for NAU, as she does night after night, hitting a season-high 27 points.  But she was the only one on her team in double figures, as is also generally the case.

NAU was picked in the pre-season polls to finish seventh in the Big Sky Conference – but would have to crank it up to even get to that point.  The Jacks are 0-4 and sitting in last place.

It would be an understatement to say that this team has been under-achieving.  This year’s squad includes a solid core of experienced veterans to go with a better-than-average recruiting class, three post players who are six-foot or taller, and a couple of transfer guards with experience.

It took Kelly a season to get on track after arriving from Binghamton University in New York, where her teams set records for most wins in a season and most consecutive wins as the school transitioned from Division II to D-I during Kelly’s five years as head coach there.

When she got to Flagstaff, her 2003-04 Lumberjack team went 12-16, but then Kelly put together a 19-10 season, followed by two 20-win campaigns.

She became the first women’s basketball coach to take an NAU team to the NCAA Tournament and won the first conference title in school history.

But the wheels came off the bus after that 2006-07 season and Kelly has been trying since then to climb back to the top.

She received a vote of confidence from the administration, which gave her a three-year extension on her contract in 2010.  But the Jacks appear to be dangerously close to a fifth straight losing season.

They go on the road next for a couple of games in Montana, playing the Grizzlies on Thursday and Montana State on Saturday.  Kelly’s crew is 0-8 on the road.

It doesn’t take long for losing teams to also lose their fan base.  The NAU women’s team is averaging just a few heads over 200 at each home ball game this season – which is just half of what the team averaged two seasons ago when they stunk the place up with a 5-24 record.

Even the best coaches can’t get by on past accomplishments forever.

Joan Bonvicini was a hall-of-fame coach who had been the head coach at the University of Arizona for 17 years and had taken the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament eight times.

But she was fired in 2008 after three consecutive 20-loss seasons – during which time the attendance for the women’s home games dropped 43 percent.

Kelly needs to find the answer soon.  There are 13 more regular-season games left.  The Jacks would need to win 10 of those games to avoid a fifth straight losing season.

She still has another year remaining on the contract extension, who goes through the 2013 season.

Joan Bonvicini, too, had one more year left on her contract.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)