The last two years that Northern Arizona made the four hour trip south to McKale Center, Cameron Jones put up career numbers against the Wildcats and came oh so close to pulling off the Red Line Upset. With Jones gone, how would NAU fare this year?
Last year, this yearly meeting of the two schools took place during finals at NAU, so the team decided to fly down the afternoon of the game so all of the players could take their finals (this would never happen at a school like U of A). Unfortunately, a giant snow storm blew into Flagstaff that morning, grounding the NAU private jet, forcing the team to bus down two hours to Deer Valley to meet up with another plane. Unfortunately, this plane was never cleared for landing at that airport, so the team went another half hour to Sky Harbor, where they met up with another jet to fly them to Tucson. Longtime play-by-play man Mitch Strohman was live-tweeting the day's events, and it was pretty funny stuff to read. When they finally arrived at the Tucson Airport, they were met by a police escort, since they were landing when the game was originally supposed to tip off. Cameron Jones said it was one of the craziest things he'd ever seen, a police escort to a basketball game, even though here in Tucson that is a regular occurrence. The Jacks literally got off the bus, had half an hour to warm up, and the game was underway. They led most of the game, faltering at the end. Hopefully this year, getting to Tucson a day before the game to avoid weather, would allow them to hang on to that lead for the entire game, and not just the the first 32 minutes.
NAU clearly brought the Flagstaff weather with them to Tucson, raining with temperatures in the 50s outside, but inside it was a totally different story. A crowd of nearly 14,000 in McKale, waiting to see if the Cats would have a better outcome than their last home game, a 4 point loss to San Diego State. NAU was coming off of an embarrassing 35 point loss in Prescott to BYU just three days before.
Sitting in the Arizona student section (ZonaZoo), right behind the pep band (of which I know many of the members because I was in the University of Arizona drumline for the past four years) gave me a great view of the game: right behind the basket, next to NAU's bench.
The Jacks started off great, forcing Arizona to play their tempo (extremely slow) and getting out to a nice 14-7 lead and silencing the Wildcat faithful. But then with six minutes left in the first half, Solomon Hill got his first points of the game which tied the game for the Wildcats, and they never looked back. NAU kept it close, only trailing by six at half.
At halftime, Arizona AD Greg Byrne came out on to the court and introduced new head football coach Rich Rodriguez to the crowd, who got a huge ovation when he said, "The huddle is a waste of time." Apparently the basketball team was listening to this too, because they came out running in the second half and just overwhelmed NAU with their speed and size. The Cats started the second half with a 10-2 run, extending the lead to 14 and keeping it in double digits for most of the rest of the game. NAU of course had no answer for Arizona's size, unable to drive to the basket, settling for jumpers and shooting just 37% from the field. That combined with the repeated shot clock violations killed the Jacks' chances at mounting any sort of comeback.
Even though it was not a particularly entertaining game, with a final score of only 53-39 and Arizona leading by double digits most of the second half, NAU coach Mike Adras kept the ZonaZoo students amused with his style of coaching, wearing tennis shoes and standing out on the three point line for most of the game. Living in Flagstaff for 16 years, I've grown accustomed to seeing it (and honestly I wish Sean Miller showed that much passion for the game at U of A) but apparently no one from Tucson is used to coaching enthusiasm like Mike Adras shows. Even though it's been a rough couple of years for Adras and NAU, especially after last season's high expectations, I hope he sticks around at NAU. He is exactly what that program and the Big Sky Conference need, especially if the basketball team is going to be kept from playing in the Skydome and having to play their home games in the joke of a gym that is Rolle Activity Center.
at ARIZONA 53, NORTHERN ARIZONA 39 12/03/2011
NORTHERN ARIZONA 2-6 (0-0) -- S. Saldivar 2-7 2-2 7; D. Norman 1-3 0-0 2; J. Douglas 2-11 0-0 4; M. Dunn 3-4 0-1 7; C. Gruber 5-11 0-0 13; E. Ekanem 2-3 0-0 4; M. Jacobsen 1-2 0-0 2; G. Bewernick 0-1 0-2 0; L. Flores 0-0 0-0 0; B. Olayinka 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 16-43 2-5 39. ARIZONA 6-2 (0-0) -- S. Hill 6-11 1-2 15; J. Perry 2-2 2-4 6; K. Fogg 3-8 2-2 11; N. Johnson 3-6 1-2 9; J. Turner 2-5 0-2 5; J. Mayes 0-4 0-0 0; B. Lavender 1-4 0-0 3; K. Parrom 1-4 0-0 2; A. Chol 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 19-45 6-12 53.
Three-point goals: NAU 5-14 (S. Saldivar 1-3; M. Dunn 1-2; J. Douglas 0-3; C. Gruber 3-6), ARIZ 9-26 (K. Fogg 3-6; B. Lavender 1-4; S. Hill 2-5; K. Parrom 0-2; J. Mayes 0-3; N. Johnson 2-3; J. Turner 1-3); Rebounds: NAU 24 (D. Norman 8), ARIZ 27 (S. Hill 7); Assists: NAU 13 (S. Saldivar 3), ARIZ 15 (N. Johnson 4); Total Fouls -- NAU 11, ARIZ 9; Fouled Out: NAU-None; ARIZ-None.