The NAU men’s basketball team sought their first win of the season as they opened Big Sky Conference play Saturday afternoon against Eastern Washington University. The weekend meeting between the two schools was supposed to be a doubleheader, but the Friday game was postponed due to an inconclusive COVID-19 result from Eastern Washington.
Eastern Washington entered the meeting with a 1-4 record after a difficult stretch of nonconference games, which resulted in close losses to Washington State University, the University of Arizona and Saint Mary’s College.
NAU’s offense needed to find success in order to have a chance of defeating the Eagles. Coming into Saturday, the Lumberjacks’ highest point total was 53 in their season-opening loss to Arizona. The team only shot 30.5% from the field against the Wildcats.
Early in the first half, NAU got exactly what the doctor ordered as the offense got off to a rolling start. Redshirt junior guard Luke Avdalovic hit two 3-pointers to open the scoring and the Lumberjacks found themselves up 10-2 in the first four minutes.
The lead was short-lived as Eastern Washington’s lackadaisical play turned around and the team found its stride.
The Eagles hit a pair of threes, but their success came in the paint led by junior forward Tanner Groves. His 6-foot-9, 235-pound frame was too much for NAU to handle as the big man had 12 points and eight rebounds.
For the half, 24 of Eastern Washington’s 32 points came in the paint.
While the Eagles led by as much as 10 in the half, junior guard Cameron Shelton helped lead a 6-0 run to end the half, cutting the deficit to four.
Monopolizing the paint continued to be the story for Eastern Washington as their first eight points in the second half came down low.
Following a timeout where NAU head coach Shane Burcar was verbally frustrated with his team’s lack of interior protection, the Lumberjacks allowed open shots from beyond the arc for the Eagles.
Junior guard Kim Aiken Jr. feasted from 3-point land as he made four in a row, pushing Eastern Washington ahead by 15. The Eagles cruised from there and went on to extend their lead to over 20 by the end of the game.
Groves finished a dominant afternoon with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Aiken Jr. added 19 points for the Eagles and went 5-of-7 from beyond the arc. As a team, Eastern Washington shot 59% from the field in the second half.
NAU’s performance tapered off and looked like their first three games as the team only shot 35% in the final 20 minutes.
Shelton led the way for the Lumberjacks in the losing effort as he finished with 23 points and six rebounds.
Avdalovic and Shelton continued to carry NAU as they were responsible for 50% or more of the Lumberjacks’ points for a fourth-straight game. NAU’s silver lining is that they scored their most points of the year with 64.
NAU is now 0-4 overall and 0-1 in conference play to start the season. The Lumberjacks will head to Denver, Colorado on Monday for a matchup with Texas State University.