Loree Payne has NAU women poised for run at Big Sky hoops title

Loree Payne may have found the formula that will enable the Northern Arizona University women’s basketball program to finally overcome its history of under-achieving mediocrity.

The formula?  Slow and steady improvement, one season at a time.

The NAU head  coach was hired away from the University of Puget Sound, a small D-III program in Washington state, in April in 2017.  She spent seven years at Puget Sound and led that program to its first-ever regular-season Northwest Conference championship, earning conference Coach of the Year honors twice.

Now she’s trying to work her magic at a school that is a daunting step up from D-III play.

And this coming season may be the best opportunity she will ever have to climb the conference ladder and have a legitimate shot at a Big Sky title.   She just filled the final spot on the 2020-21 roster a week ago, and the talent and depth she will be taking into next season is cause for optimism.

The program has steadily progressed from an 11th-place conference finish in her first year, to eighth the second season, and a fourth-place finish last season.   She should have the horses now to keep on climbing.

It’s been a slow progression, but each year has seen improvement.  Payne posted seven wins in her first season, 13 wins the next year, and the 16-15 overall record this past season marks the first winning season for the NAU program in more than a decade, while the 12 conference victories (12-8) also reached a new plateau.  A 9-9 conference record during the 2014-15 season is the closest those teams during that decade came to a winning record.

That’s how bad things have been for the floundering Lumberjack program.

But the program’s struggles to earn some kind of legitimacy go back much further.  There have been 10 head coaches prior to Payne over a span of 40 years and only two of them have posted at least one 20-win season.  In fact, there have been just three 20-win marks during the entire 40 seasons.

Meg Sanders did it during the 1997-98 season and Laurie Kelly won 22 in 2005-06 and 20 the next year.  But Kelly flamed out, unable to win more than 11 games in any one season for the final four years of her nine-year run.

The former NAU coach with the highest profile is Charli Turner Thorne, who spent three seasons as the Jacks’ head coach and parlayed that into a job as the Arizona State head coach, where she’s been for the past 24 seasons.  But even Charli couldn’t notch 20 wins in that Flagstaff outpost, where she finished with a .500 career (40-40) record; 14 wins was her best single-season mark.

Here’s why Payne has a chance to become the next coach to win 20 games with the Lumberjacks, and earn a crack at the Big Sky title at the same time…

The ‘Jacks will return the top six scorers from last season, including senior forward Khiarica Rasheed, who led the Big Sky in scoring with 18.9 points per game.  There will be an extraordinary sense of chemistry and continuity on the floor since Payne started the same five players for every game of the 2019-20 season.

And, to give next season’s squad some depth and additional experience, Payne has added a couple of transfers who were teammates for their one season at the University of Nevada.   In addition to getting experience at the D-I level with the Wolfpack, both were standout junior college players.

JJ Nakai, a 5’7″ guard who is actually a native of Flagstaff and was added in mid April, set school records at Pima Community College with 1,397 points and 442 assists and also finished her sophomore year ranked third nationally in scoring (24.1 pts.) and assists.

Miki’ala Maio played at Salt Lake Community College in Nevada, where the 5’9″ guard led the team to back-to-back region championships and was named a Region 18 MVP.  She filled the final roster slot, signing on a week ago.

So Payne has the tools to make a big splash next season.  But she needs to make the most of it because the window of opportunity is closing.

Except for forward Nina Radford, who will be a junior next year, all of the returning starters will be seniors playing their final season at NAU.  And both of the transfers have just one more season of eligibility.

So it’s safe to assume that there will be a sense of urgency about the 2020-21 season.

But it will be tempered with a large dose of optimism.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)