The University of Arizona women’s basketball team may finally have hit bottom, while the women’s program at Northern Arizona University just got a big boost to its credibility.
And both season-defining events happened in the same game last week.
The Arizona women just extended their losing streak to six games. But even worse, the last loss in that three-week skid came against NAU last Thursday.
It marks the first time in 22 years that the Lumberjacks, who play in the lower-tier Big Sky Conference, have defeated a Pac-12 team. And they did it convincingly, handing the Wildcats an 84-66 upset in Flagstaff.
That Pac-12 opponent two decades ago was Arizona State. You have to go back even farther to find the last time the NAU women beat the Wildcats, 29 years to be exact.
For Loree Payne, who is in her first season as the Jacks’ head coach, the victory sent a message that her program might be making the turn toward respectability for a program long mired in mediocrity. To Adia Barnes, in her second season directing the Arizona program, the loss calls into question whether the Cats are making any progress at all.
The 84-66 upset certainly wasn’t expected, but probably shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. NAU is just 3-4 on the season, but its four losses have been by an average margin of just eight points. The shocker against Arizona could be the break-out win Payne has been looking for, the one to use as a spring board the rest of the way.
Payne, who was hired away from a Division III program at University of Puget Sound in Washington, is the 10th head coach in the 40-year-history of the program. Only two of those coaches have posted at least one 20-win season. She succeeds Sue Darling, who came from the UofA program where she was an assistant coach. Darling was able to post double-digit wins just once in her four years in Flagstaff.
Before Darling, Laurie Kelly couldn’t manage to win more than 11 games in any one of her nine seasons at the helm.
Flagstaff has become the place that aspiring young coaches go to build their resume, but instead find themselves on a road to nowhere. The exception would be Charli Turner Thorne who was hired away from NAU by Arizona State and has gone on to a hugely successful career with the Sun Devils.
But that was 20 years ago.
Barnes, too, was expected to be the savior for a Wildcat program that has suffered through some down years since hall-of-fame coach Joan Bonvicini was fired after the 2007-2008 season. Bonvicini ran the program for 17 years, but three disappointing seasons led to her dismissal and replacement by Niya Butts, who posted just one winning season in her eight years.
Like Payne, Barnes has never been a head coach at a D-I program. In fact, Barnes has never been a college head coach. Period.
She was hired on the strength of her outstanding college career at UofA, where she was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year and left the program as the all-time scoring leader, and her 12 years in the WNBA.
A slow start to this season wouldn’t be cause for alarm, except for the fact that last year she debuted by leading the Cats to a disappointing 5-13 record, tied for last place in the Pac-12, and eliminated in the first round of the conference tournament.
This year’s squad won the first two games on the schedule, but have piled up six losses since to get off to a worrisome 2-6 start. And they haven’t even begun the rugged Pac-12 schedule. They’re still playing non-conference games that are supposed to be used to pad some wins into the schedule before getting into conference.
Not the best way to build confidence among the fan base, which has grown wary of coaches over-selling success.
If the NAU game is any indicator, the Cats are far from being ready to play in the rugged Pac-12, which has five teams ranked nationally in the AP Top 25.
While NAU’s defense, which has been lock-down stingy all season, stifled the Cats’ fire power, holding them to just under 35 percent from the floor and 26 percent from behind the arc, the Lumberjacks used a run-and-gun offense to score points in transition with easy lay-ups and wide-open three-pointers. Five NAU players scored in double figures, led by redshirt senior Olivia Lucero. The 5’9 guard from Gilbert’s Highland High School finished with 23 points to lead all scorers.
While still basking in the glow of that 18-point victory as they prepared for today’s game with Cal Poly, there must have been at least a little disappointment for the Jacks in carving out a piece of history on their home floor.
There were only 383 fans in Rolle Activity Center to watch it unfold.
Maybe after bringing down a Pac-12 team, it will raise the level of interest among the student body.
For sure, it has caught the attention of the other teams in the Big Sky.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)