When Northern Arizona made the trek to Cheney a year ago, Eastern Washington junior Jacob Davison scored 41 points against the Lumberjacks, at a time when NAU averaged roughly five conference wins in a four-year stretch.
Things have changed in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Previous NAU head coach Jack Murphy has since been hired as an assistant at Arizona, leading to the interim hire of Shane Burcar.
He’s having quite the audition to keep the job.
Burcar, one of Arizona’s top high school basketball coaches before making the move to college hoops in 2018 as an assistant at NAU, has helped the Lumberjacks earn the third-best record in the Big Sky Conference (15-10, 9-7).
EWU (18-8, 11-4) hosts NAU on Saturday at Reese Court, one of five remaining regular-season games for an Eagles team chasing a Big Sky title.
EWU and Northern Colorado – tied for second in the Big Sky with identical league and overall records – trail first-place Montana (16-10, 12-3) by 1 1/2 games.
“(NAU is) playing good basketball and they are battling for a top-five seed,” Legans said. “We’re trying to battle the other way, so we’ll see which team prevails. I think us playing at home is good, but they’ll be ready just like Sacramento State was. We have to come out and play a very good ballgame.”
In what’s essentially a three-team race for the Big Sky crown, EWU knows it can’t afford a hiccup against NAU, a team the Eagles beat 77-66 on the road last month.
The toughest conference road trip still looms for EWU, which travels to Southern Utah and Northern Colorado next week. The Eagles beat both teams in Cheney last month in overtime thrillers.
Legans isn’t looking past NAU, which has fallen to EWU in eight of the previous nine matchups.
“We talk about being 1-0 on the day,” Legans said. “I think we have a mature group especially up top, and that trickles down the younger guys who know we have to be good every game.
“It’s a fun race, and it’s going to be fun when we get to Boise (for the Big Sky Tournament).”
EWU hit 14 3-pointers in the previous win over NAU last month. The Eagles hit 11 shots from beyond the arc in Thursday’s 77-76 win over Sacramento State.
NAU appeared to be heading toward another losing season when it started conference play 1-4. Since the dismissal of starting forward Ted McGree, Northern Arizona has won eight of its past 11 games, including a 78-61 win at Idaho on Thursday.
The Lumberjacks are led by versatile guard Cameron Shelton, who averages 13.9 points, six rebounds and 4.4 assists a game. Inside, NAU goes to 6-foot-9 Brooks DeBisschop (12 ppg, 8 rpg).
After briefly holding the Big Sky lead, the Eagles are 3-2 since in conference play.
EWU senior Mason Peatling hopes for more consistency in these next five games.
“We have to stay the course and play through the runs,” Peatling said. “It’s a game of runs, and if we’re up at the end, we’re always going to happy with that result.”
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