You couldn’t tell it by the results of last night’s game, but the Northern Arizona University women’s basketball team has been improving as it works its way through a rebuilding effort.
But lowly Idaho just dealt the Lumberjacks a setback as NAU shot a dismal 22.4 percent from the field in yesterday’s 35-poimt loss to a sub-.500 team. Despite the fact that Idaho State has the leading scorer in the Big Sky Conference on its roster, the Vandals came into the game 10-13 overall and 4-8 in conference play – and had lost three of their last four games.
Yet they held the ‘Jacks to their worse shooting performance of the season, out-rebounded them 53-34, and converted 20 NAU turnovers into 25 points on the way to the 78-43 thumping in Moscow.
The Vandals owned the territory under the basket. Not only did they grab more than their share of the boards, they also outscored the ‘Jacks by 30 points in the paint (40-10). And NAU’s transition game was running on fumes, as the ‘Jacks picked up just two fast-break points.
After watching last night’s game it might be hard to understand how NAU has won even 11 games this year. But this season has actually been heading in the right direction.
The Lumberjacks entered the Idaho game after winning five of their previous six games and were holding opponents to 60 points a game.
But the biggest barometer of the program’s improvement since Sue Darling took over as head coach prior to the 2012-13 season is this team’s success in conference play. The Idaho loss dropped the ‘Jacks to 7-6 in the Big Sky, but the seven wins equal the most conference victories in any of the last eight seasons.
To be able to post the best record in eight years, they have to make sure they bring their ‘A’ game against Portland State, which is the second-to-last game on the regular-season schedule. Portland has won just one game in Big Sky play this season and is the ‘Jacks’ best chance for a win since the other four teams left on the schedule are top-5 teams in the conference.
The ‘Jacks have already won more games than last season when they posted a 9-20 overall record and six conference wins. That was just a tick up from Darling’s first season in charge, when the team won eight games. They’re at 11 wins now and could pick up a couple more yet.
It’s a slow turnaround after the program struggled to even get to the .500 mark in the three seasons before Darling took over, coming from the University of Arizona where she spent four years as an assistant on Niya Butts‘ staff. But she had head-coaching experience, spending three years directing the Air Force program.
This season held great promise as Darling returned three of her top offensive players from last year, while adding a couple of JUCO transfers, Madi Austin and Mariah Willadsen,that had helped take Mesa Community College to the NJCAA Division I national championship. Both are getting lots of playing time, but have not contributed big numbers offensively, with Willadsen averaging 4.5 points a game and Austin just 2.4.
So it’s a couple of seniors that have stepped up to lead the scoring attack, with Erikka Banks, a 6-foot forward from California, leading the team with 13.7 points a game and Raven Anderson just off the pace with 12.4 ppg. Anderson is a 6’2″ center from Chandler High School, one of five players on the roster that hail from in-state high schools.
Once again, the ‘Jacks are unable to begin making plans for a trip into the post-season. The Big Sky Tournament will likely be their last chance to make any kind of statement that shows some real progress this season.
But there are a handful of games left in the regular season. A win over Eastern Washington, the No. 2-ranked team in the Big Sky, or either North Dakota or Sacramento State, which are tied for third, would be a great way to build some momentum for next season.
Those opportunities begin tomorrow afternoon when they go on the road to play Eastern Washington.
Unfortunately, they’ve got just today to try to recover from the psychological blow that Idaho laid on them.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)