It’s hard to believe it has been six years since the Northern Arizona University women’s basketball team has been able to qualify for its own conference tournament. That’s how far the program has slipped in recent years.
But Thursday’s 17-point victory over Portland State clinched a spot in this year’s Big Sky Tournament. And that’s just part of an exciting, drama-filled close to the regular season, which will wrap up tonight with a game against Sacramento State.
It was just a week ago that the Lumberjacks pulled off a huge 72-68 upset win over the Big Sky defending champion University of North Dakota – in double overtime. That 2OT victory was the first in the history of the program.
Brittani Lusain, a 5’8″ sophomore guard from California, poured in 21 points to lead all scorers, and then added 10 rebounds, five assists, and two blocked shots to complete her night’s work.
Against Portland State, Lusain scored eight points, dished out six assists and had a great night defensively in helping to beat Portland State, 79-62, to earn the tourney berth. But it was the 6’2″ senior center from Chandler High School, Raven Anderson, that got 21 points Thursday. And that didn’t even make her high-scorer. That honor went to senior Erikka Banks, who led with 24 points as the Jacks really spread the scoring around.
Banks canned 16 of those points in the first half as the Jacks used 50 percent shooting from the field to carry them to a 36-31 lead at the half. And then shot a sizzling 64.5 percent in the second half to maintain a double-digit lead for all but about five minutes of the half.
If the Jacks beat Sacramento State (14-14, 12-5) this afternoon, they will finish the season with 14 wins overall and 10 in conference. That’s the biggest jump since head coach Sue Darling arrived three years ago from Tucson, where she was an assistant for four years in the University of Arizona program. Last season’s final record was 9-20 overall and included just six Big Sky wins.
However, Sacramento State will provide a serious challenge to accomplishing that. The Hornets are the No. 2-ranked team in the Big Sky and are on a three-game winning streak.
But just getting a chance for some post-season play will go a long way toward soothing the sting from last weekend’s 88-67 loss on Senior Day to Northern Colorado. And the dominating win over Portland State has built some confidence in the team that they can overcome that kind of setback.
A solid starting line-up this year, combined with a top-25 recruiting class and help from the bench – thanks to a couple of JUCO transfers – is beginning to pay dividends in what should be a turnaround year for this program. In the double-overtime win against North Dakota, Madi Austin and Mariah Willadsen, two transfers this year from national JUCO champion Mesa Community College, came off the bench to make significant contributions to that win. Willadsen had 14 points and Austin added 10 more.
This is a more balanced team than in the past. Eight different players have scored in double figures this season. led by Banks with 18 games in double figures. The 6’0″ forward from California also has 597 career rebounds, which puts her at No. 5 on the school’s all-time list.
And the defense has been more aggressive – and effective. Opponents have been held to under 50 points in six games this season. Last year that didn’t happen even once.
An improved record and a post-season appearance is just the next step in the rebuilding process. But it’s an important one that shows continued progress for a third straight year.
It will be interesting to see how far the Jacks get in the Big Sky tourney. That will be even more telling.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)