NAU women’s hoops can’t seem to get the engine started

For the new NAU women’s basketball coach, it must seem like she’s trying to start a stubborn lawn mower engine.  She keeps pulling on the cord, the uncooperative machine sputters and tries to start, nearly gets there, but won’t quite turn over.

Sue Darling is trying to resurrect a moribund program at Northern Arizona University, but the challenge is proving to be… well, challenging.  She needs to win half of the remaining 12 games on the Lumberjacks’ regular-season schedule just to post more victories than her predecessor, Laurie Kelly, did in her last year before departing for a head coaching job at a Division III school. (See 4/20/12 phxfan article)

Kelly stood on the deck of the floundering ship that struggled mightily the last four years to right itself.  She breathed life into the program early in her 9-year tour of duty in Flagstaff, posting a couple of 20-win seasons, but the 11 wins during the 2010-11 campaign were the most for any of the last four seasons.  After a 9-20 record last year that included just four Big Sky Conference victories, she abandoned ship.

Darling left her assistant-coach position at the University of Arizona to try to pick up the pieces this year.  The season started with six straight losses before a one-point win against Cal State Fullerton put one in the win column.

Aha…a sputter of life in the new engine!

But then the Jacks dropped four more in a row.

Keep pulling on the cord, coach.

January got off to an encouraging start.  Back-to-back wins against Southern Utah and Eastern Washington followed that four-game skid – and both wins were by double digits!

The carburetor coughs as the engine begins to come to life!

A one-point loss to Portland State stalled the winning streak, but a 21-point victory over Weber State raised hopes again.

Still sputtering, but keep pulling on the cord… something is beginning to happen.

Two games ago, the players gave their frustrated coach a glimpse of what they can do when they shot better than 48 per cent in the first half against Idaho State to help build a nice lead at halftime – but then fell to 19 per cent shooting in the second half to give the Bengals a 52-48 win on the Jacks’ home floor.

“That is not a physical thing, it’s a mental thing,” Darling said after the game.  “We don’t have the maturity at this time to close out a close game, and that’s the next step it’s going to take to move to the upper echelon of the league.”

Last night the Jacks opened a six-game stretch that will include five road games, traveling to Greeley to take on Northern Colorado.  Once again, they couldn’t keep the engine cranked for the full 40 minutes.

NAU leads the conference with a .416 field-goal percentage and has four players shooting 43 per cent or better. They shot 43.5 per cent for the game against Northern Colorado, an 8-9 team (5-3 BSC) that was picked pre-season to finish second in the Big Sky, but lost, 69-54.  The Bears countered with 54 per cent shooting.

“We needed a 40-minute effort, and we did not have that tonight,” Darling pointed out after the game.  “We’re not going to win if we don’t play as a team… and we need a better effort, both offensively and defensively.”

That improvement needs to come in the paint and behind the arc.  The Jacks were out-rebounded 30-23 and hit the mark on just five of 14 three-point attempts – despite shooting 61 per cent on two-point shots.

Darling’s crew is actually ahead of projections at this point.  The Jacks were picked in the pre-season polls to finish in ninth place in the Big Sky Conference, and right now they sit in seventh place (before last night’s loss).

Tomorrow, they get a shot at the new kid on the block.  They travel to Grand Forks to take on North Dakota, which is playing its first season in the Big Sky and is 2-7 in conference play.

This game should provide an opportunity to jump back into the win column and get the climb started toward those six more wins needed to show any improvement at all over last year.

Keep pulling the cord, coach.  Maybe that engine will turn over yet.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)