NAU improves free-throws in road win over Sacramento State, 68-57

Photo courtesy of Sacramento State Athletics.

NAU women’s basketball bounced back after a tough loss to conference undefeated Southern Utah with a strong win on the road against Sacramento State late Monday night. The Lumberjacks figured out their free-throw shooting woes and shot 14/17 from the line (82.4%) against a struggling Hornets squad and took the win, 68-57.

“We’ve been saying since day one that free throws are going to win or lose us games,” NAU head coach Loree Payne. “I think it’s cost us some games and I think tonight it won us the game.”

The game will go down as the Moran game, as the twin freshman guard/forward duo of Olivia and Nyah Moran led the Lumberjacks with 17 and 13 points respectively.

On multiple occasions, the twins found each other in transition with one of them scoring off an assist from the other.

“I think it’s something that you have to utilize together when the time is right,” Payne said.”Early on it was a little bit of ‘check in for your sister’, it was one of them on the floor. I think being able to get them some experience together, you can definitely see a little bit of a connection.”

NAU hit the ground running in the first quarter by scoring four points in the first minute. Two of those points came on free throws from junior guard Regan Schenck. The Lumberjacks, who have been statistically the worst free-throw shooting team in the conference (67.9%), had its second-best foul line performance of the season as they made 14/17 free throws.

Sacramento State forced NAU to earn its win from the line, committing 18 personal fouls and having two players foul out. Sophomore point guard Nina Berry (2 pts, 6 rebs) fouled out with nine seconds left in the third quarter, leaving the Hornets that much thinner going into the fourth quarter.

Hornets starting sophomore center Isnelle Natabou got into foul trouble very early as well. She committed her third foul with 6:12 left in the second quarter and the fourth one in the third. She got her fifth and final foul with 1:40 left in the game, not before scoring 11 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes.

The Lumberjacks brought a balanced attack into The Nest at Sacramento State. By the first media timeout with 2:45 left in the first quarter, five Lumberjacks got on the scoreboard. Eight of nine NAU players scored. Redshirt sophomore forward Sierra Mich’l didn’t score after only playing a minute of the game.

“I think Sierra picked up a couple fouls and she wasn’t really able to get into sync of the game,” Payne said. “I felt like Fatou [Jaiteh] gave us some great minutes. In that second half, she was playing really really well and I think that’s the beauty about having depth.”

Freshman forward Fatoumata Jaiteh was one of a handful of contributors off the bench for NAU as she scored eight points on 2/3 FG shooting and was a perfect 4/4 from the free-throw line, all of which came in the first half.

The depth that Payne touts certainly showed up against the Hornets as the Lumberjack bench outscored the Sacramento State bench 32-6, with Olivia Moran making up over half of that total.

NAU’s strong start was challenged after the first quarter, where the Lumberjacks led 21-11 after a last-second shot inside the elbow by graduate forward Khiarica Rasheed. 

Sacramento State opened the second quarter with a 7-0 run led entirely by graduate guard Lianna Tillman. Tillman, who played her undergraduate career at Pacific, led the Hornets tonight with 17 points in 33 minutes. NAU led at the half, 34-25.

While the Lumberjacks didn’t shoot very much from three-point range (4/12, 33.3%), the defense held the Hornets to 4/16 (25%) from beyond the arc. 

The Lumberjacks returned to their dominating ways in the third quarter by outsourcing the Hornets 24-13 in the third frame to give them a 20-point lead with one quarter remaining. 

NAU kept itself out of foul trouble late in the game, only committing five fouls in the second half, with the first one not occurring until seven minutes into the third quarter. Sacramento State committed six fouls in the third quarter alone.

The Hornets made one last push in the fourth quarter. Across just over a minute early in the final quarter, Sacramento State jumped on a 6-0 run. This led Payne to call a 30-second timeout to stop the run from getting out of hand.  

“I think for us it’s a great learning opportunity for some of our young kids who haven’t been in that situation,” Payne said. “We really were trying to get them to eat a little bit of the clock and we wanted to play a little bit slower than we normally play. We didn’t have the “slow down” type of players on the floor. I think they had some challenges with trying to slow things down. In that case I should have put more veterans in so we can kind of milk that clock a little bit.”

The Hornets slowly chipped into the Lumberjack lead, but it was too little too late as they were only able to cut the lead to 11 by the end of the game. NAU took the win to maintain its third place in the Big Sky Standings and hold one-game leads over Montana (10-4, 3-2 Big Sky) and Weber State (7-7, 3-2 Big Sky).

NAU (7-6, 4-1 Big Sky) gets back to above .500 on the overall season and more importantly improves its conference record. The Lumberjacks are scheduled to return to Flagstaff for one game against Northern Colorado (4-6, 0-2 Big Sky) on Saturday at 2 p.m. MST in the Walkup Skydome. The team will go on a four-game road trip and won’t return home until Feb. 3 when it rematches the Hornets.

The Lumberjacks have now won seven consecutive games against the Hornets dating back to the 2018-19 season.

Sacramento State (4-9, 0-4 Big Sky) is on a 3-game losing streak and has dropped six of its last seven games. The Hornets will look to win its first conference game of the season and first conference win under first-year head coach Mark Campbell on Saturday at 2 p.m. PST against Portland State (5-5, 0-2 Big Sky) who have had its last four scheduled games postponed for COVID-19 protocols.

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