For the first time in 14 years, the NAU women’s basketball team is headed to the Big Sky conference tournament semifinals after defeating the University of Montana Grizzlies 68-65 in their quarterfinal matchup. After losing to the Grizzlies in the past two encounters during the regular season, NAU got the win that mattered the most.
NAU had not seen a semifinals appearance since their last winning season in 2006, when NAU went 22-10, winning the Big Sky conference tournament and reaching their only appearance in the NCAA tournament.
This NAU squad is looking to make another run at that opportunity as they showed with their performance Tuesday. For the Lumberjacks, the struggle, which was a trend throughout the season, was in the team’s consistency. Across all quarters, NAU would appear to be on a roller coaster, with really high levels of success quickly followed by a low and scoreless run that cost them certain wins in the regular season.
“This team is on the brink of doing something special,” NAU head coach Loree Payne said in a Pluto TV interview. “I feel like we got a little bit of our swagger back.”
The Lumberjacks showed a different poise on the court, one that shows typically in conjunction with much-needed wins like their overtime victory against the University of Idaho back on Feb. 20th. The Lumberjacks were in this game when it mattered most, and that was at the end of the game, a problem they’ve worked to correct since the first day of practice this season.
“This is a tough group," Payne said. "I think it really shows the level of maturity that we’ve been trying to establish here since day one. These kids have been here since the bottom to now being relevant in the Big Sky, so we’re excited about that.”
Down for most of the first half, sophomore guard Regan Schenck scored 6 points in part of a much needed 8-point run that would put the Lumberjacks ahead finishing the first half 28-27. Redshirt sophomore forward Nina Radford went 3-4 from the field in the third quarter, adding 8 points in a huge third-quarter offensive push that would keep them in the game heading into the fourth quarter up 45-41. With Radford’s help, the biggest thing that NAU had left to worry about was composure.
NAU’s scoring ability in the fourth quarter became the key to their win in Boise, Idaho. Matching the Grizzlies nearly point for point, NAU won the game by three points. With clutch free throws from redshirt junior guard Caitlin Malvar and junior forward Khiarica Rasheed, alongside much-needed baskets from teammates redshirt junior guard Jacey Bailey and senior guard Lauren Orndoff, the Lumberjacks did what was needed to be done and held on to their lead with composure to give them the historic 68-65 win Tuesday afternoon.
“We played with such poise and composure down the stretch which was huge,” Payne said. “This is the first semifinals appearance in a while for this program. I am super proud of the team for executing.”
With the win, the Lumberjacks will take on Big Sky regular-season conference champion Montana State University in a Big Sky semifinals matchup on Wednesday, March 11.