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Following a seven-day break, the NAU women’s basketball team returned to action Thursday evening in their home opener against the University of Texas, El Paso. 

The Lumberjacks looked to bounce back against the Miners after a tough road loss to in-state rival Grand Canyon University on Dec. 9. 

While the starting five remained the same for NAU, they got the news they were looking for as 2020-21 Big Sky preseason MVP Khiarica Rasheed made her season debut. The impact was instantaneous as the Lumberjacks ended the first quarter on a 13-4 run. Rasheed scored her first basket of the year and grabbed a rebound in the opening frame. 

Both offenses traded blows in the second quarter as it seemed no one could miss a shot. 

The Lumberjacks had spurts of success, as did UTEP. Neither team was willing to give an inch and the half ended with NAU up a single point thanks to a made free throw from redshirt Junior Jacey Bailey. 

Senior guard JJ Nakai continued her prosperous start to the season with an 11-point first half. She has scored double-digit points in every game so far this season. 

For the Miners, sophomore guard Katia Gallegos filled the stat sheet with nine points, four rebounds and four assists in the half. Coming into the game, she was within the top 50 in the nation for scoring at 21.3 points per game. 

The second half continued to be a back-and-forth offensive duel between the Lumberjacks and Miners. The key difference in the third quarter came down to efficiency as NAU shot a blazing 75% in the quarter and went on a streak of nine made baskets in a row. 

The Miners were still within single digits by the end of the third, but the team went 0-for-6 from beyond the arc and the three-point drought continued for them in the fourth as they finished the game only making five of their 20 three-point attempts. 

NAU found their stride in the final 10 minutes as their play improved defensively. 

UTEP had stretches where they turned the ball over three times in two minutes and went on a scoring drought of over three minutes. They couldn’t balance out the turnovers with points and it led to their downfall as NAU went up double digits late in the fourth quarter. 

The intentional fouls came as UTEP desperately tried to crawl their way back, but NAU’s free-throw success kept the Miners at bay and the Lumberjacks held on to win 83-75. 

Nakai led the way for NAU’s high-powered offense in the win as she finished with 20 points. Four other Lumberjacks finished in double digits as senior guard Miki’ala Maio and sophomore guard Emily Rodabaugh each finished with 14 points, redshirt senior guard Jacey Bailey had 12 points and junior guard Regan Schenck added 11 points and eight rebounds in the winning effort. 

With a minutes restriction, Rasheed finished her season debut with six points and four rebounds.

Even though NAU’s offense did enough to earn the victory, head coach Loree Payne didn’t like what she saw down low from her team. 

“We have to get better in the paint,” Payne said. “We allowed 48 points in the paint and gave up 12 offensive rebounds.” 

In comparison, NAU only had 16 points in the paint. 

The Lumberjacks improved to 4-2 on the season and will head down to Tucson on Saturday for an afternoon showdown with New Mexico State University (2-4 overall, 0-0 conference).