It was a roller coaster of a night for the Lumberjacks, as they knocked off the University of Montana Grizzlies, the Big Sky leader, 57-56 Thursday evening. NAU had few opportunities to take the lead, but came away with a victory nonetheless.
Montana was fresh off a 6-game win streak and owned a 13-3 conference record. The first half did not start in the NAU’s favor, as the Grizzlies took an early lead while the Lumberjacks failed to get baskets, shooting less than 30% for a fair amount of the first half.
Montana started to crack at the seams late in the first half, finishing with a scoreless five minutes, which allowed NAU to put themselves back in position to take the lead heading into the locker room. Both teams were unable to get baskets heading into halftime with the Grizzlies leading 24-22. At halftime, NAU had a shooting average of 35%, which was not far from Montana, which finished the first half with 43%.
With NAU back in the game, it became a battle of control. For Montana, team fouls became a detrimental factor. Sophomore guard Cameron Shelton made a layup in the 13th minute of the second half to give NAU the lead 36-35, but a 1 point lead was far from the cushion needed to take Montana out of the game.
Both teams started to exchange leads for the following five minutes. Montana’s leading scorer, senior guard Sayeed Pritchett, was a non-factor for a majority of the game, leaving both his jersey and intensity back in Missoula, Montana. The No. 3 scorer in the Big Sky made his first basket late in the game, finishing the night with 8 points, his lowest-scoring game all season.
“The credit goes to our scout team,” interim head coach Shane Burcar said. “Since Monday, our scout team has been working and running tendencies and our guys were prepared.”
Montana began to apart and this time, it was in the final minutes of play. The Grizzlies' inability to contain their team fouls allowed NAU space it needed to put them in a winning position. In the final seconds of play, Shelton made two pressure mounted free throws, giving the Lumberjacks the lead with 2.02 seconds left on the clock.
“This is the position we wanted to be in,” senior forward Bernie Andre said. “Since the preseason, we expected to be here. Now, we just have to keep on fighting.”
NAU’s win against the Grizzlies made history, marking the first win against Montana in 10 games and sending head coach Travis DeCuire home with his first loss against NAU. It also cements the Lumberjacks a top-five spot in the Big Sky Conference rankings. The Lumberjacks are 16-11 on the season and 10-8 in conference play, as they head home to play Montana State University Saturday at 4 p.m in the Walkup Skydome.
“I don’t think we can put this win into words,” Burcar said. “Emotionally it was a great moment for us. I’m so proud of the guys and how they battled.”