Turnaround season ahead for NAU women’s basketball?

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                </div>  Every new head coach taking over a failed program would love to have a quick fix to get back on top.  Sue Darling may have just found her version […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Every new head coach taking over a failed program would love to have a quick fix to get back on top.  Sue Darling may have just found her version of that kind of turnaround help.

The third-year women’s basketball coach at Northern Arizona University just announced the addition of a couple of junior-college transfers that not only have a couple of years of experience at the college level, but played major roles in securing a national championship.

Madi Austin and Mariah Willadsen were two of the top three scorers for the Mesa Community College team that just brought home the NJCAA Division II national championship (3/27/14 phxfan article).  Austin averaged 14 points and seven rebounds a game throughout the 28-5 season that set a school record for victories, while Willadsen contributed 13 points and 4.4 rebounds an outing.

Darling called the pair “game-changers” and noted that their addition continues to build on her recruiting success with local athletes.  Austin, a six-foot forward, graduated from Horizon High School in Scottsdale, and Willadsen is a 5’8″ guard from Red Mountain High School in Mesa.  And joining them will be  Tori Lloyd from Dobson High School in Mesa as members of what is turning out to be one of the better recruiting classes in recent years.

And Darling already has a good start on next year as the program returns three of the top offensive players from last season, guards Rene Coggins and Brittani Lusain and 6’2″ center Raven Anderson.  Coggins is from Mesa’s Mountain View High School and Anderson, who will provide senior leadership for the coming season, graduated from Chandler High.

Lusain, an import from California, was named the Big Sky Conference Outstanding Freshman.  And 6’0″ junior forward Erikka Banks, an honorable mention on last year’s All-Big Sky First Team, also returns to the line-up.

Darling’s playing career lends itself to the philosophy of finding in-state talent.  She played her high-school ball at Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson and then went on to captain the women’s basketball team at University of Arizona. She was an assistant coach at both UofA and Arizona State, but also has head-coaching experience from three years in charge of the Air Force program.

While the 2014-15 season looks promising, the next year might be even bigger.  Darling will have Austin and Willadsen for two more years, and Coggins and Lusain will be sophomores in the fall.

It has been a struggle for Darling in the two years since being hired away from University of Arizona, where she was an assistant for four years.  She won just eight games in her first season and then posted a 9-20 campaign this year – exactly where her predecessor left off before resigning after three disappointing seasons.  On the plus side, six of those nine wins came in Big Sky Conference play.

But this year’s incoming class that includes some top JUCO talent could be the one to get the program over the hump.

“With the addition of Mariah and Madi, we have upped our level of talent, experience, leadership, work ethic and toughness,” says Darling of her Mesa CC acquisitions.

Austin will provide some help with perimeter shooting (32 percent from behind the arc) and also led the Thunderbirds last season with 23 blocks.  Willadsen shot 45.5 percent from the field, while dishing out 47 assists and notching 37 steals on defense.

And both have shown they can step up in the big games.  In the national championship game, Austin  had 27 points and eight rebounds and was named to the All-Tournament team, while Willadsen recorded a double-double of 16 points and 10 boards.

Next season, there will be a lot of big games.  Each one of those games, from beginning to end, is going to be important because it’s time for Darling to begin turning the corner with this program.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)