NAU Women’s Basketball looks toward a strong future after a winning season

NAU Women's Basketball head coach Loree Payne leads her team back to the game after a timeout February 25, 2020 Rolle Activity Center. 

NAU Women’s Basketball wrapped up its season with a winning record for the second year in a row under Head Coach Loree Payne, a feat the Lumberjacks had not reached since the 2006-07 season. 

Despite so many unknowns during the pandemic, the team was able to pull off a full season with minimal hiccups.

“The need to be adaptable was huge this year,” Payne said. “For us to play [in the] postseason and to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 14 years, I think it just speaks to the culture we’re trying to create here.” 

NAU won in the first round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament, defeating No. 10 Weber State 82-69. This tournament run would end, however, as the team was knocked out by conference runner-up Idaho in the quarterfinals 67-53. 

The Lumberjacks were a team that faced a lot of adversity early in the year. NAU was expecting all five starters back heading into the season, but due to injury, that number was reduced to two with one of the healthy players coming off an injury herself. 

“We were expecting a totally veteran team, and we ended up with a pretty new team with our transfers and freshman,” Payne said. “I think us playing so well at the end of the season really encouraged us that our [players] were finally picking up the system and playing within it, which gives us a lot of excitement for the future.” 

NAU was able to start the season hot, jumping out to a 4-2 record before facing a cancelation against New Mexico State, which gave the team a two-week break over the holidays. 

“I think the break was actually good for us,” Payne said. “The kids got a little bit of downtime, a little bit of rest and recovery, and we came out and played really strong against Idaho.”

After a 22-point win over Idaho on New Year’s Eve, the Lumberjacks dropped seven out of their next eight games with injuries mounting against star players during a tough part of the conference schedule. NAU also had a tough year on the road, posting a 2-8 record in conference away games.

“It was really unfortunate with how the Big Sky schedule worked out this year,” Payne said. “It was challenging to go on the road, [and] to have to play back-to-back games against the same team. There were a handful of those that we weren’t at full strength, [and] we were missing key players. I don’t believe we were ever really at full strength until the end of the season.” 

NAU wrapped up the regular season 12-12 overall and 10-10 in conference play after sweeping two of its final four opponents and receiving the No. 7 seed in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. 

The Lumberjacks handled Weber State in the first round 82-68, but in the second round, the team lost to Idaho. 

“Idaho, their players had just come off a shutdown and a pause,” Payne said about the semifinal loss. “I think their players were very eager to get back out onto the floor. We just didn’t make shots, and we struggled from three. During games we shot the three well we generally came out successfully, and games we didn’t we had a really challenging time … If you don’t bring your A-game you don’t win.” 

After the conclusion of its Big Sky run, NAU was still gridlocked at 13-13, or .500.

NAU wrapped up the season by heading to Frankfort, Kentucky. for the Women’s Basketball Invitational, a tournament featuring seven other mid-major schools. Every team in the tournament competed in three games, and NAU started by playing Florida International University in the first round and defeating the Panthers 82-69 — thereby advancing to the winners’ bracket. 

In the second round, NAU played the Portland Pilots and fell 80-65. In the third-place game, the Lumberjacks edged out Stetson University by three points to finish the tournament 2-1 and the season 15-14, or one win over that .500 mark. 

“To end our season on a win, I think there were only six teams that ended their season with a win in the country and we were one of them, which is pretty cool,” Payne said.

Now, the team is set to take a huge step forward as it looks forward to next season.

“The main foundation of our team is returning, and we’re going to be adding four more players,” Payne said. “Three have already signed, and another one is signing next week, so we feel like our additions are going to put us in a good position. I think they complement the kids coming back, and we’re just really excited. We’re sitting at a position again in the spring where we are going to have a veteran team coming back and we’re going to be able to pick up where we left off.” 

NAU had a number of key seniors who made a huge impact last season such as guards JJ Nakai and Miki’ala Maio, as well as forwards Jacey Bailey and Khiarica Rasheed. According to NAU Athletics, those four players combined for 3,160 on-court minutes this past season, or 54.5% of the team’s total minutes. Nakai and Rasheed were one and two on the team in scoring last season, both averaging over 13 points-per-game when healthy. Rasheed led the team with seven rebounds per game and Jacey Bailey guided the Lumberjacks with 44 steals on the season. There were some tough losses for the team, but it does have star power returning for next season. Senior forward Khiarica Rasheed, who won Preseason MVP last season, announced she will be returning using her extra year of eligibility.

Junior starting guard Regan Schenck looks to lead the team in the 2021-22 campaign after posting 34.5 minutes per game this past season. Schenck guided_ the team with 149 assists last season, seconded the tally with 6.8 rebounds per game and also posted 11.4 points nightly. In Schenck, NAU has a star with a team around her to make an impact in the Big Sky Conference the next time around.

After facing immense adversity, NAU was able to finish with a winning season and continue the overall upward trajectory of the women’s basketball program.