The Vaqueros defeat the Lumberjacks 91-79

Photo courtesy of NAU Athletics

UT Rio Grande Valley managed to come away with a win behind senior forward Justin Johnson’s 25 points to hand NAU their second loss in Texas this season. 

The Vaqueros came away with a win after dominant performances by Johnson, who had 25 points, and sophomore guard Will Johnston, who made several key plays late in the game to secure the Vaqueros their fourth win of the season. 

Despite senior forward Nik Mains’ 22 points and three other players being in double-digits, the Lumberjacks did not have enough to overcome UT’s physicality.

Coming out of the gate, the Lumberjacks made an early statement behind Mains' early three field goals that included a three-pointer, giving NAU a 11-5 lead. 

That lead did not last and the game was not decided early.

“They came out and started running early on us,” coach Matt Figger of UT said of NAU’s early start. “But as the game went on, I could see their legs get tired.”

As hot of a start as NAU had, the Vaqueros came back and took the lead 13-11 after a floater by Johnston.

Both teams stuck to a man-on-man defense and neither used a press defense early in the game. 

Sophomore guard Liam Lloyd had a three-pointer coming out of a timeout at the 12:00 minute mark to regain the Lumberjack lead 19-17. This shot put a spark in the rest of the offense. 

Mains continued the hot streak in the half having 15 points in 10 minutes, along with three three-pointers. 

The Lumberjacks switched to a three-two zone which stifled the offense of UT and gave them problems inside where they were having success. 

With eight minutes left in the half, NAU had the biggest lead of the game so far at 29-19, after another on-time three from Lloyd. But much like the first lead, UT managed to figure out the Lumberjack zone defense and tied the game at 29 after two made free-throws by Johnson. 

Junior guard Jalen Cone snapped the 10-0 run by the Vaqueros after a tough layup off the right side of the backboard.

Coming out of the timeout with three minutes left, UT installed a zone defense of their own that sophomore guard Trent Mclaughlin for NAU capitalized on almost immediately with a three-pointer from the top of the arc.  

Graduate student guard Xavier Fuller had an acrobatic mid-range jump shot to give the Lumberjacks a 41-35 lead to end the half. 

This game was close, and it did not seem like anyone would pull away anytime soon. Northern Arizona’s offense was exceptional, shooting 49.1% from the field to UT’s 34.1%. 

UT dominated the boards, out rebounding NAU on offensive rebounds 8-2. This led them to 10 second chance points to NAU’s zero. 

Both teams came out of the half playing man-on-man defense and UT had multiple down-low scores that put them in the lead 49-48, which was capped off by grad student forward Dima Zdor’s dunk.

This forced NAU to play more zone, and UT followed suit shortly after. 

The remainder of the game was back-and-forth between these two squads, and the will to win was everywhere to be found. There were 17 lead changes in this contest and it was clear these teams were close to evenly matched.  

Johnson had a massive three-pointer with seven minutes left to put UT up 66-62.

On the following possession, freshman forward Jack Wistrcill of NAU had a three of his own to keep the game close. 

Fuller would have another three-pointer for NAU to tie the game at 70 with five minutes left, but the Lumberjacks would turnover their next two possessions.

Down by four, head coach Shane Burcar of NAU called a timeout to settle his troops. 

NAU came out of the timeout running a trap defense that led to a steal and two points by Cone. 

Up by two points, UT called a timeout.

UT did not score on this possession, but Johnston had a huge step-back three-pointer on the next one and two free throws to give the Vaqueros a seven point lead with two minutes left. 

“Will Johnston’s big three put the nail in the coffin.” Figger said.  

With one minute left, Zdor had a steal and score to put UT up by 13 points and secure the victory for the Vaqueros.  

NAU struggled handling the ball this game, having six more turnovers and nine more fouls. UT had 15 more points off turnovers and capitalized on their presence inside shooting 50% from the field. 

Northern Arizona will head home to face Abilene Christian Rolle Activity Center on Sunday, Nov. 27, at 1 p.m. MT. The game will be streaming on ESPN+.

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