Another lost year? Patton seeking first NAU hoops win

The 5’10” guard with the smooth moves and sweet shooter’s touch put up 41 points in her last basketball game, setting a Big Sky Conference record.  And still her team lost.

That is happening a lot lately.  Northern Arizona‘s women’s basketball team is off to an 0-6 start in the final year of Amy Patton‘s college career.

What’s a girl to do?  She has led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and minutes played since her sophomore year.

The local standout from McClintock High School in Tempe leads all Division I players with 150 points already this season and is averaging 25 points a game – tied for second in the nation.

But, despite the arrival of a new head coach this year, she has to be terribly discouraged about the possibility of facing still another season – her last in college – without being able to lead her team to a winning record, much less into the post-season.

She probably can’t help but think back to her freshman year when the Lumberjacks opened the 2009-10 season in similar fashion to this year, unable to get their first win until the sixth game of the season when they beat lowly Sienna just before November closed out.  Not a good omen… they finished that season 5-24.

The next two years under former coach Laurie Kelly saw better starts…but not much better finishes.  In her sophomore year, the team started 4-2 but finished 11-18.  Last year, the Jacks got off to a 3-3 start and crawled to a 9-20 record.  That’s when Kelly decided it was time to move on, and accepted a head coaching position at a D-III college in her native Minnesota.

During those seasons of frustration, Patton did what she could to stem the tide.  She was named the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in her first season and broke a 25-year-old school record for single-season scoring with 539 points.  Her career average in Flagstaff is 16.5 points per game – the second-best in program history.

And barring an injury this year, she will become the program’s all-time leading scorer.

In the last game, a 95-83 loss to Bradley, Patton played all 40 minutes, trying to squeeze out that first win.  In addition to her 41-point performance, she drained five three-pointers and was 8-of-9 from the free-throw line.  She also added seven rebounds and a couple of assists.

Oh yeah, she also scooped up 10 steals to become the first player in program history to record double-digit steals in a game.

This kid does everything – and does it well.

She had every reason to be optimistic about this season.  The school brought in a new head coach with a wealth of experience.  Sue Darling has solid credentials: more than 20 years coaching experience that includes three years as head coach at Air Force and most recently four years on the coaching staff at University of Arizona where she was offensive coordinator and head assistant.

This year’s team also has a large dose of senior leadership and four of the top five scorers from last year have returned.

In all fairness, they have showed signs of solid play this year.  Their non-conference schedule is one of the toughest in recent years, but they’ve been in most games.  If you throw out the 22-point loss to No. 15 Nebraska, the final margins average out to less than eight points.

And they’ve learned to hold it together during crunch time.  Against unbeaten Nebraska-Omaha, the Jacks climbed out of a 40-24 second-half hole to force a double overtime before losing by four points, 79-75.

That game in mid-November showed what the seniors are capable of doing, as Tyler Stephens-Jenkins tied an NAU record set in 1996 with eight three-pointers, Patton added 18 points and nine boards, and Aubrey Davis pitched in 13 points and eight rebounds.  Stephens-Jenkins is another local athlete, a small forward from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix.

Tonight, Darling’s crew will have a chance to break the drought as they start a two-game road trip through California, meeting up with Cal State Fullerton tonight and UC Riverside on Sunday.

Both games are winnable.  The Jacks beat both teams last year, a 64-54 win over CSF, and a 67-59 victory over Riverside.  However, both of those games were at home.

Cal State Fullerton (2-4) is coming off a loss to Eastern Washington over the weekend, but has beaten one other Big Sky team, Sacramento State.  UC Riverside (4-2) has some momentum from a 71-65 home win against a Pac-12 team, Washington State.

After Patton’s 41-point performance in the losing effort against Bradley, when the Braves put up 95 points of their own, it was obvious her new head coach felt her pain.  “She is a talented kid,” Darling said after the game.  “But, at the same time, I know she does not want to be the leading scorer on an 0-6 team.  We have to start playing some defense.”

She does that, too, coach.  But she’s also busy doing a lot of other things.

It will take a team effort to pull out of this tailspin.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)