NAU all-time basketball scoring record should fall tonight

Tonight’s 7 p.m. women’s basketball tilt between Northern Arizona University and Southern Utah should be one for the record books.

Amy Patton, the senior scoring machine from McClintock High School in Tempe, needs just five points to become the all-time scoring leader for the Lumberjacks.  The 5’10” guard is averaging 21.5 points a game.  Do the math.

“If I get the record on Thursday, that’s great,” she said earlier this week. “But getting a win is what’s happening.”

It’s not surprising the youngster would be thinking that way.  The Jacks have just one win so far this season.

After three disappointing seasons during which the women’s program averaged eight wins a season, NAU (1-10, 0-2) is still struggling under its new head coach, Sue Darling, who was hired away from University of Arizona last year to try to breathe new life into the program.  She spent four years as an assistant on Niya Butts’ staff, but also has head-coaching experience at Air Force.

Patton was a huge find for former head coach, Laurie Kelly, and was expected to be the foundation for the future.

Patton brought the whole package with her when she shunned other offers after graduating from McClintock, deciding to stay at home and do what she could to resurrect the moribund women’s basketball program at the Flagstaff school, a D-I program in the less-glamorous Big Sky Conference.

In addition to being one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the conference, Patton has accumulated 679 career rebounds – which puts her in third place on the school’s all-time list – and has 186 career steals, seventh on the list.

Her impressive stats and long list of honors during high school made her one of NAU’s most elite recruits ever.  She averaged 31 points, 14 rebounds, and three steals during four years at McClintock and was named the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and The Arizona Republic’s Player of the Year as a senior.

She wasted no time in establishing herself at the next level, earning Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year honors and breaking a 25-year-old school record for single-season scoring with 539 points.  And since her sophomore year, she has led the team in points, rebounds, steals, and minutes played.

And she’s going out in style.  She has scored in double digits in 10 of the 11 games this year, with five games of 20 or more points, and a 41-point performance against Bradley that is the third-highest scoring game in the NCAA this season.  She leads the Big Sky in scoring average – more than six points per game ahead of the nearest competitor – and ranks second in the league with 23 three-pointers.

This year, it looked like she was going to have some help getting the program over the hump as the Jacks returned three more of last season’s top five scorers.

But the results so far are pretty much the same.  This year’s edition opened with six straight losses and the only win has been a one-point squeaker to get past Cal State Fullerton, 55-54.  Granted, a couple of the losses went to overtime, but that will be of little consolation when the season record goes in the books at year’s end.

As she always has, Patton continues to be optimistic – at least outwardly.  “Individually, my career has been really good – but, as a team, it hasn’t been the best,” she notes with a dash of understatement.

“I feel like the team will be able to turn it around after the break, so I’m really excited for that.”

That hoped-for turnaround begins tonight in Cedar City, Iowa, against the latest newcomer to the Big Sky Conference.

Southern Utah joins the conference this year and got little love in the pre-season predictions.  The Thunderbirds were picked to finish dead last – but have been a surprise so far.  They come into the match-up with NAU sporting a 7-4 record overall and in third place in the conference with a 1-0 mark after opening with a 60-54 victory over North Dakota.

The T-Birds have put together one of the top scoring offenses in the country this year, averaging 71 points a game and topping the 90-point total twice.  A 36 per cent accuracy behind the arc puts them among the top 25 in the NCAA.

They also don’t allow a lot of second shots, out-rebounding their opponents by seven boards a game.

But the Jacks have to start some place to begin working up the conference ladder, just to live up to the pre-season expectations of a ninth-place finish this year.  Cedar City is as good as anywhere to jump-start the move.

Everybody understands that it takes time to re-build a program.  Next year, Darling brings in a class of recruits from Arizona and six other states – and one from Bulgaria – that she can call her own.  It includes three point guards and some good size in the paint with a pair of 6’1″ post players.

Darling said when announcing the class that she was “ecstatic” about her first recruiting class.  “They all excelled in the classroom, as well as on the basketball court,” she pointed out at the time.  “They are all gym rats; they love the game and love to compete.”

That’s great for NAU.  But, unfortunately, it’s a little late to the party to help Amy Patton get that winning season she has searched for her entire college career.