NAU women hold off North Dakota

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Northern Arizona women’s basketball team dusted themselves off from a tough road trip and needed every second of a 50-minute ball game Thursday night to pull out a resounding 72-68 victory over North Dakota.

The Lumberjacks inched closer to a potential Big Sky Tournament berth with the victory, hammering out their first ever double overtime victory in school history in the process. With the win, NAU improved to 12-14 overall and 8-7 in conference play.

"It’s a four-game season right now and we’re 1-0," said head coach Sue Darling. "To start out the final two weeks with a win was huge. The conference is tight and North Dakota is a great team. Top to bottom, this is a great league and you need to win every game you can win even if we did it the hard way tonight. We have a short memory because I don’t remember our games from last weekend."

The first half was an offensive slugfest with neither team shooting better than 32 percent from the floor. NAU was able to take a 22-18 lead over the defending Big Sky champions into halftime though despite shooting only 21.2 percent.

With its four-point edge, the ‘Lumberjacks faced the task of holding off North Dakota for 20 more minutes, but they would be engaged in a completely different second half from the first. After halftime, both teams shot at least 50 percent after halftime yet NAU seemed to have control of the game at several points in the second half. Leading by two, junior Mariah Willadsen started a 9-2 run that gave NAU a 35-26 lead with 15:11 remaining in the game.

A 7-0 run that started with a three-pointer by junior Madi Austin and capped by a layup from senior Erikka Banks had the Lumberjacks in front by a dozen, 44-32, with 12 minutes left and they maintained a comfortable lead — 52-42 — as late as the 5:11 mark before North Dakota started its charge back.

North Dakota climbed within four, 54-50, with 2:37 left when sophomore Brittani Lusain knocked down her final basket of 10 second half points to put NAU up six. However, North Dakota hit its first — and only — two three-pointers in the final two minutes to eventually send the game into overtime.

"This win was crucial," Lusain said. "Those three-pointers didn’t affect us. We told ourselves that this game was ours to win and we focused on that."

Sophomore Rene Coggins’ jumper in the paint gave NAU a 62-60 lead with 2:15 left in the first overtime, but North Dakota tied the game with a layup in the waning seconds forcing a second extra period to decide a winner.

Willadsen came up big with one of her many critical shots with under two minutes left in the second overtime that tied the game at 67-67, and Banks followed with a layup on the Lumberjacks’ next possession. The teams traded a free throw apiece before Banks and Lusain each hit one from the charity stripe in the final 10 seconds to seal up the hard earned win.

"We got after it and we stayed positive with each other," Banks said. "Coach always tells us high energy is key and we always pick each other up. We don’t dwell on things."

Lusain and Banks each tallied double-doubles in the victory. Lusain posted a game-high 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Banks played 49 of a possible 50 minutes and was 7-of-10 from the floor for her 18 points in addition to 10 rebounds and four steals.

Coming off the bench, NAU’s transfers from Mesa Community College proved to be important. Willadsen scored 14 points and Austin added 10, including a pair of threes, providing NAU with leadership gained from Mesa’s national championship run last year in Thursday’s contest.

"Madi and Mariah both came up with huge plays and that’s exactly why we recruited them," Darling said. "But Brittani and Erikka also had great games and so did Rene. For all of them to keep playing hard throughout the game was incredible."

Both teams shot nearly identical percentages with NAU at 38.6 percent and North Dakota at 38.1 percent and the rebounding battle was almost even as well with North Dakota posting a 45-42 advantage. However, North Dakota turned the ball over 30 times with the Lumberjacks’ ability to draw the charge — nine of them in all for the night — playing a large role in those miscues.