NAU opens conference play vs. Montana State

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona men’s basketball team opens Big Sky Conference play Monday night with a home game against Montana State. The game will tip off at 6:30 p.m. and can be seen on FOX Sports Arizona Plus.

“We are excited to finally start the Big Sky Conference slate of games,” said head coach Jack Murphy. “We are thankful the games are at home and that Montana State and Montana have to come down to Flagstaff to play us first.”

Coach Brad Huse’s Bobcats (2-5) return two starters and five letter winners from last year’s team, which finished 7-9 in Big Sky play and 12-17 overall. Senior guard Xavier Blount is one of two seniors on the MSU team. He led the Bobcats with an average of 11.7 points per game in 2011-12.

“Montana State is an athletic team that has had some bad luck with injuries,” said Murphy. “They are a very good team that is well coached. They were picked in the upper half of the league in the preseason polls. We are going to be ready for a battle. It is their first conference game as well, and everyone wants to get off to a good start.”

Murphy’s Lumberjacks (3-5) have not played since Dec. 5, a stretch of 12 days entering Monday’s game. The team has used the time to concentrate on academics while resting after a busy first month and a half of the season.

“We want to be rested but at the same time we want to keep our edge,” said Murphy.

Freshman guard DeWayne Russell, who is seventh in the country in scoring among freshmen at 17.1 points per game, leads the Lumberjacks in scoring.

“I think we are really prepared,” said senior guard Stallon Saldivar, who needs just five assists to reach 400 for his career. “We had a few days off for finals and we are getting right back into it. The preseason helped us by playing some big schools to see what we are capable of doing. We learned a lot about ourselves. I think we are ready to play Big Sky basketball.”

NAU leads the all-time series 46-43 but has lost the last two meetings with Montana State. Prior to a 74-72 loss to the Bobcats in Flagstaff last season, the Lumberjacks had won 10 in a row at home in the series.

“We approach each game one game at a time,” said Saldivar. “We play the non-conference to see where we are at and find out who we are as a team. When we come into conference, we know how to play NAU basketball. It is a new era, and I think this first game will start our conference season well. We want to start off 1-0.”

Murphy says the start of the game with his team coming off a long layoff will be important in deciding the contest.

“It is important that we come out prepared and energized,” said Murphy. “Both teams are coming off a long layoff, so I am sure the early play will not be the prettiest brand of basketball. But it should be fun.”