SACRAMENTO, Calif. – It is a given that once teams enter conference play, the games will be close. That fact has been absolute for the Northern Arizona women's basketball team; unfortunately the trend of coming up on the short end of the stick also continued on Saturday. After trailing by as much as 13 in the second half, NAU clawed back to within two late in the fourth quarter before ultimately suffering an 82-76 loss to Sacramento State.
"Our seniors have faced Sacramento State a number of times in their careers, so we know what type of game it's going to be – it's going to be an up-and-down type of game with a lot of threes and pressure defense," said interim head coach Robyne Bostick. "The turnovers were a little high today, and the unforced turnovers are the ones that hurt a little more. If we could've limited those unforced turnovers, we could've gotten shots on those possessions."
After using overtime to knock off Southern Utah in its Big Sky opener, NAU has since dropped three consecutive conference games by a combined margin of 11 points. The Lumberjacks are now 5-10 overall and 1-3 in the Big Sky.
NAU nearly overcame 27 turnovers against Sacramento State's 40-minute pressure defense with a methodical fourth quarter comeback. The Lumberjacks went into the final period down 65-54, but managed to get within 74-72 on senior Rene Coggins' three-pointer with 3:20 to play. Four free throws by redshirt junior Olivia Lucero had the 'Jacks within two points on a pair of occasions down the stretch, but the Hornets converted on all four of their attempts from the charity stripe in the final 11 seconds to hang on to the victory.
The Lumberjacks received a number of standout performances led by sophomore Kaleigh Paplow's season-high 20 points. Paplow, along with Coggins, had eight points in the fourth quarter. Lucero finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and a season-high tying six assists, while Coggins concluded with 11 points on three triples.
On the glass, senior Brittani Lusain pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds – eight coming on the offensive end – to power NAU to a 45-39 rebounding edge.
"Our rebounding was pretty good overall," Bostick said. "We gave up some offensive rebounds at critical moments towards the end of the game, but our rebounding effort was a lot better than last weekend. We knew the game would be a game of runs with Sac State's style, and we were able to get that run at the end of the game but couldn't finish it off."
Despite falling behind by as much as eight in the opening quarter, NAU claimed a 26-24 lead by the end of it courtesy of a 13-4 quarter-ending run. NAU shot 66.7 percent in the first 10 minutes – its fifth-best field goal percentage ever in a quarter – and received seven points each from Lucero and freshman Raina Perez. Perez made her first start of her career and played the entire 40 minutes, marking the first time she had played even more than 30 minutes in a game during her debut season.
The difference in the game proved to be the final three and a half minutes of the first half when the Hornets closed on an 8-1 run. Following a three by Coggins to tie the game at 37-all, Sacramento State countered with its spurt to take a 45-38 lead into the break.
The Lumberjacks found themselves down by as many as 13 at 63-50 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter and trailed by a dozen before Coggins and Paplow led the fourth quarter charge. Coggins and Paplow combined for all 11 points during NAU's 11-2 run culminating with Coggins' third and final three of the game.
NAU shot 48.3 percent for the game – its best mark since Dec. 3 – and 50 percent or better in three of four quarters. Sacramento State shot only 37.8 percent, but made five more three-pointers than NAU.
The 'Jacks will play at Portland State on Monday at 3 p.m. Arizona time. The game is the rescheduled contest originally scheduled for this past Thursday, but was postponed due to winter conditions in Portland.