Upset win earns berth in Big Sky Tourney for NAU men

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                </div>  Jack Murphy‘s first 20-win season as the head basketball coach at Northern Arizona University will have to wait for at least another year.  Even if the Lumberjacks win out the […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Jack Murphy‘s first 20-win season as the head basketball coach at Northern Arizona University will have to wait for at least another year.  Even if the Lumberjacks win out the rest of the way, the best they will do is 19 wins.

But, short of that goal, the Lumberjacks have become the team nobody wants to play.

If you doubt that, just ask Eastern Washington.

A huge upset win over the No. 1 team in the Big Sky Conference on Saturday in Flagstaff is a good indication of how much this team has improved this year after starting the season with six losses in its first nine games.

The Jacks stunned Eastern Washington, 73-69, with a defense that held the conference’s best three-point-shooting team (43%) to just 25 percent from behind the arc and held them scoreless for the final 3:15 of the game. Coming into the game, the Eagles had a No. 14 national ranking and were averaging a conference-best 80.5 points a game.

Obviously, the Lumberjacks aren’t impressed by gaudy statistics.

They held the nation’s leading scorer, Tyler Harvey, to just nine points in the first half and 22 points for the game. When the two teams played last year in Washington, Harvey went off for 37 points as the Eagles hung a 19-point loss on the Jacks.

This time it was Aaseem Dixon, NAU’s senior guard, that took the game scoring honors, putting up 23 points and adding seven rebounds.

To put a little icing on the cake, the win also guaranteed NAU, which is No. 4 in the conference, a spot in the Big Sky Tournament.

If the Jacks win their final four games of the season, they would finish the season 19-12.  It’s not a 20-win season, but it does mark the third consecutive season of continuing improvement since Murphy arrived in April of 2012, following three years as an assistant at the University of Memphis and eight years with the University of Arizona program.  This is his first head-coaching job.

During the summer his contract was extended through 2019, which means the school recognizes the progress he is making.

Murphy inherited a mess when he took over the program.  The former head coach resigned just nine games into the 2011-12 season and the team finished out under an interim coach, losing its last 16 straight games and posting a 5-24 season that put them in the conference cellar.  The program had been struggling before that, unable to finish better than fourth in the Big Sky in any of the previous three years.

In Murphy’s first year, the team finished 11-21 overall and 8-12 in conference.  But last year’s squad, which returned just one starter from the year before, pushed the record to 15 wins and a 12-8 conference mark to earn it a tie for second place in the Big Sky – after being picked in the pre-season to finish no better than seventh.  The Jacks finished in the top three in the conference in six different categories, including three-point field goal percentage (1st), scoring defense (2nd) and rebounding defense (2nd).

This year, Murphy had a little more to work with as most of the roster returned and only one starter was lost to graduation.

Improving once again on the previous year shouldn’t be a difficult task.  The Jacks already have as many wins as last season and play three teams down the stretch that are sitting below them on the conference ladder: No. 9 North Dakota, No. 6 Northern Colorado, and No. 5 Portland State.

But the fourth game, the final one on the regular-season schedule, will be a bigger challenge.  The Jacks play Sacramento State, which is now in a tie for the No. 1 spot in the conference after the loss to NAU dropped Eastern Washington into third place.

The Sacramento State game will be played at home on March 7.  A packed Walkup Skydome full of enthusiastic Lumberjack fans eager for another big upset will provide a fitting finale to a third season for a team enjoying some much-needed success in its rebuilding effort.

And a win over Sacramento State would be a great momentum-builder going into the Big Sky Tournament.  Last year, the Jacks lost in the first round by two points to Northern Colorado in a game in which they came back from a 20-point second-half deficit and had a chance to win the game at the buzzer.

The 2015 tournament will be Murphy’s third in his three seasons in Flagstaff. The first two ended in first-round exits, but this team just might carry him a little deeper into the post-season.

Rebuilding is often a long, step-by-step process.  And this would be a good next step.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)