EL PASO, Texas – The Northern Arizona women's basketball has continually said this is a new era and if Friday night is any indication, it very well could be. Following their "relentless" motto, the Lumberjacks built a lead, weathered a UTEP storm back and then answered back convincingly to stun the Miners on their home court, 65-51, in the season opener for both teams.
"I couldn't be any more proud of the team and the way they played tonight," said interim head coach Robyne Bostick, who won her first career game as a head coach. "We knew UTEP was bigger than we were, so one of our keys was to control the paint on defense and force them to take contested outside shots. Our post and help defense as well as our rebounding was good. Everyone who got minutes did something big for us and I'm pleased with that."
With the victory, the Lumberjacks finally came out on top against the Miners in their fourth consecutive trip to El Paso. Over the last three years, NAU had lost by 49, 24 and 11 points respectively. This year would not be the same story though behind double-digit scoring efforts by redshirt junior Olivia Lucero (19), senior Brittani Lusain (18) and senior Rene Coggins (18). Overall, NAU had dropped five straight to UTEP on the road and won for the first time in El Paso since March 4, 1986.
The win was also NAU's first season-opening victory on the road since the 'Jacks beat New Mexico State to start the 2005-06 season – coincidentally also the last time NAU had a winning record.
To do so, the Lumberjacks dominated the second and fourth quarters around a third quarter that got out of hand for NAU. After NAU extended its 31-21 halftime lead to 15 points in the second half on baskets by Lusain and redshirt junior Kenna McDavis, UTEP broke out its full court pressure to temporarily stun NAU. As a result, the Miners briefly took a 41-40 lead with 2:21 left in the third quarter on the heels of a 20-4 run including the final 13 in a row.
However, Lusain immediately responded with a bucket on the very next possession, which ignited a 10-0 Lumberjack run that carried into the fourth quarter. Once the 'Jacks got the lead, they never relinquished it. The Miners were within seven with five minutes left, but senior Taylor Leyva hit a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down and Coggins converted on a pair of back-to-back second chance opportunities to push NAU's lead out to 61-47 with three minutes to go.
"We thought they would press and we were surprised they didn't do it until the second half," Bostick said. "We were a little tentative in breaking it when they first pressed. But once we settled down and could get into our half court offense, we were good. I couldn't be happier with the way our players stayed with it and didn't back down when UTEP took the lead."
Outside of the first and third quarters when NAU turned the ball over 12 combined times, the Lumberjacks managed to keep their count down with just five in the second and fourth quarters combined – quarters in which NAU outscored UTEP by 19 points.
NAU trailed 12-5 through the first five and a half minutes of the game, but went into the second quarter tied 14-14 with the help of Lucero's seven first quarter points. The Miners reclaimed a small lead in the second quarter before Coggins drained consecutive treys to put NAU ahead, 24-19. NAU would close the first half on a 15-2 run to take its sizeable lead into the break.
Lucero scored a dozen of her team-high 19 points in the first half, while she played the full 40 minutes in her first game as a Lumberjack after her redshirt transfer season a year ago. She shot 7-for-14 from the field and added four assists and three rebounds to her debut line.
"Honestly, this is one of the greatest feelings I've had in my career," Lucero said. "To get back out there with this team and this coaching staff, it was so exciting to step out on the floor and get a win. I've never been 1-0 and for this team to finally get a win at (UTEP's) place, it's a surreal feeling and we have so much to look forward to."
With Lucero and Lusain continually attacking the basket, NAU dominated the points in the paint, 36-14, and shot 41.9 percent for the game. UTEP – a 2016 WNIT quarterfinalist – shot only 29.8 percent and despite a size advantage, the Miners only outrebounded the 'Jacks by two, 40-38. Sophomore Kaleigh Paplow grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds with herself and Lusain each collecting four offensive boards.
NAU will turn around and return to Flagstaff for its home opener on Sunday at 12 p.m. The Lumberjacks will host Antelope Valley in the Rolle Activity Center.