ISU never trailed to Northern Arizona, but almost let Saturday night’s game at Holt Arena slip through its hands.
“Ugly wins are still wins,” said guard Brandon Boyd. “I’m happy about that, but we have to execute better because we didn’t play well tonight.”
With under three minutes to play and ISU (8-6, 3-0 BSC) leading by nine, Boyd took NAU’s Corey Brown to the rim and dunked over the Lumberjack’s 6-foot-8 forward, drawing a foul in the process. The made free throw put the Bengals up by 12, but NAU (3-14, 0-4 BSC) quickly countered.
NAU’s Gino Little drained a three with just over two minutes to play and moments later, JoJo Anderson sank another three-ball to cut the ISU lead down to six.
“Those last two minutes we were a little unorganized,” Boyd said. “Credit them, they made some big shots. They played well the last two minutes and we didn’t play well.”
After the Bengals missed the front end of a one-and-one, the Lumberjacks had the ballgame back to one possession when Anderson knocked down all three free throws after he was fouled while shooting a three by Novak Topalovic.
“I think we were risky defending the three-point line in the last two minutes,” said head coach Bill Evans. “I don’t think we did a good job of that at all. We lost guys and we will work on that.”
After two missed opportunities to put the game away – a missed layup and three-pointer – NAU regained possession and had a chance to tie the game.
With the shot clock expired, Geno Luzcando, who currently holds ISU’s all-time steals record, gave too much help in an attempt to get a steal that would have ended the game.
“I helped too much and then Novak helped me,” Luzcando said. “His only option was to drive it.”
Instead, NAU kicked the ball to Tory Johnson. Johnson pumped, and drove past Topalovic, who was closing out on the play, down the baseline and was met by a waiting Luzcando who took the game-winning charge with 1.7 second remaining.
“I was scared at first because I thought they were going to call a blocking foul,” Luzcando said. “That was a big play for us.”
The win makes ISU 3-0 in Big Sky play for the first time since the 2006-07 season, but just like the Weber State win where ISU led by 10 with a minute left to play, the win came with some complications.
“I think my team got away from doing what makes us good,” Evans said. “Getting the ball from side to side and playing the right way.”
After opening the game on a 7-2 run, the Bengals struggled offensively for the rest of the first half. ISU scored seven of the game’s first nine points, but then went on to score only 19 points for the remainder of the half while committing five turnovers in a six-minute span.
“We didn’t execute offensively at all,” Evans said. “I don’t know why. They run up and down the floor with my paycheck hanging out of their mouth and I don’t have control over it.”
But the offensive struggles weren’t immune to ISU.
NAU shot 25 percent from the field in the first half, and missed eight of its first 10 shots.
Both teams shot under 32 percent from the floor in the first half, but finished the ballgame around the 40 percent mark (ISU 41.8 percent; NAU 39.3 percent).
“Northern Arizona deserves a lot of credit for that,” Evans said. “They defended hard, they slowed us down, they outrebounded us, they got to the foul line. We wanted to outrebound them and we didn’t do that.”