NAU women rally, take down Eastern Washington

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Northern Arizona women’s basketball team closed the first half on a 7-0 run to take a two-point halftime lead and used a strong second half start to notch an 86-78 win over Eastern Washington on Saturday night.

The Lumberjacks (8-15, 5-9 Big sky) erased a nine-point first half deficit to record their first two-game win streak since defeating Utah Valley and UC Santa Barbara in back-to-back games on Nov. 30 and Dec. 5.

"Both teams tonight had potent offenses, and it was going to come down to defense and rebounding," said NAU coach Sue Darling. "It was awesome to see us build on a great game on Thursday. We were able to come out and play 40 minutes of the same type of ball. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve grown up, and I feel like we’re coming of age. It’s neat to see everyone step their game up at the right time of year."

Junior Erikka Banks led a second consecutive strong team effort by the Lumberjacks, finishing with a career-high 31 points, 24 of which came in the second half. She totaled 10 rebounds for her sixth double-double of the season and was superb at the free-throw line, knocking down a career-high 17 of 19 shots.

The Eagles held a 22-13 lead nine minutes into the game before the Lumberjacks tied it up at 30-all with 3:46 left in the first half. Eastern Washington scored the next five points, but NAU freshman Brittani Lusain and senior Amanda Frost combined for the final seven points of the half. After Frost hit two late attempts from the charity stripe, the Lumberjacks took a 37-35 lead into halftime.

With the Lumberjacks ahead by three, 43-40, junior Raven Anderson contributed four free throws and Banks added a three-point play during a 7-0 NAU run that extended the margin to 50-40 at the 15:14 mark. The Eagles kept the game close, but Banks proved to be too much for Eastern Washington to handle. In the final four minutes of the game, Banks scored 14 of the team’s 17 points, going a perfect 10 of 10 from the line to deny the Eagles of any sort of real comeback threat.

"We needed to get wins and work as a team," Banks said. "We’ve been working on our defense, and it’s paying off. Tonight it was critical, and so was our offensive boards. These two wins are key wins."

With Frost garnering a lot of attention from the Eagles — the senior finished with 13 points — several other Lumberjacks stepped up in addition to Banks. Lusain finished with 16 points, five rebounds and five assists while Anderson went 7 of 8 from the free-throw line for 13 points. Freshman Catelyn Preston added seven points and eight rebounds off the bench.

"Teams are playing us different, face-guarding Amanda more," Lusain said. "We have to play around that, and Amanda did a lot of good things off the ball, setting off-ball screens. She understands that and she buys into doing things to help the team without scoring. The energy we have right now gets me hyped."

The game featured 52 combined fouls, but the Lumberjacks did their part, going 30 of 36 as a team from the line, equaling their season high for free-throw makes and setting a new season high for free-throw attempts. NAU shot 47.3 percent from the field, held Eastern Washington to 40 percent and finished with a 38-31 rebounding advantage.

The Lumberjacks are now wins out of the top seven in the Big Sky standings and a conference tournament berth.