When asked how Arizona women’s basketball can avoid falling into a trap at Northern Arizona before their big game against No. 11 Texas, Wildcats’ head coach Adia Barnes points to the upsets around the country and repeats the old “one game at a time” cliche. Fifth-year senior Sam Thomas just needs to remember the team’s trip to Flagstaff her freshman season.
What does she remember about that day?
“Losing,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I remember it was a tough game for us. I mean, freshman year was tough, in general. But I just remember going up there. It was freezing. They had their student section filled. They wanted to beat us really badly and they did, so definitely want to come back. We’ve beat them since then, but I want to beat them at NAU this time.”
The Wildcats can’t look past the Lumberjacks even though Arizona is a very different program now than it was in that six-win season when NAU won by 18 points. Last year, the ‘Jacks came to Tucson and gave the Wildcats a run for their money in an empty McKale Center. At halftime, the home team led by just six points. It took a 31-22 third quarter for Arizona to win by 13.
It will be a hostile environment for Arizona in more ways than one. With finals completed over a week ago, NAU’s student section may not be full this time, but there are still plenty of obstacles.
In addition to the cold, the Wildcats must deal with the altitude. While Arizona travels to Boulder most years to face the Colorado Buffaloes, Flagstaff is more than 1500 feet higher in elevation than that Pac-12 trip.
Once they get to the cold, high climes of the northern part of the state, the Wildcats will be playing in an unusual environment. The Lumberjacks play their basketball games in the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome. The multiuse facility is also the home of the NAU football team, making it different than the basketball-only arenas that Arizona usually plays in.
“We never played there,” Barnes said. “When we played last time, we played in a smaller gym, because something was under construction.”
Just going to Flagstaff is uncommon for the Wildcats these days, but it wasn’t always the case. Since 1973, Arizona has played at NAU 15 times. The Lumberjacks have made the trip to Southern Arizona 17 times, and the two teams have played neutral-court games five times.
In those 15 road games, Arizona has dropped the matchup against NAU five times. The Wildcats have lost a total of eight times in the series, including once at home.
As for why the game is being played in Flagstaff this season, it is part of a three-year contract with the Lumberjacks that started last season. NAU plays in Tucson twice, and Arizona makes the trek up north once. Barnes hopes to extend that deal even longer because she thinks it’s good for both schools, financially and competitively.
“With COVID and just as head coach running a program that’s obviously conscious of your budget and the travel and all those things—which we should be—you always want to play in-state,” Barnes said.
It also gives the Lumberjacks the opportunity to host a Pac-12 school. NAU has already played at Washington and Washington State, but this gives them a chance to have a Power 5 school on their campus. It will be the first time that has happened since that fateful day during Thomas’ freshman season.
Can the Lumberjacks shock the world and take out a Top 5 team? If Arizona worries too much about that game in Vegas on Sunday, it could happen. After all, the NAU team that beat the Wildcats in 2017 only won seven games all season, but one of them was against one of the big schools down south.
“That’s hard this time of year,” Barnes said. “We talk about just narrowing our focus, one game at a time, not looking ahead. And what I remind the team is look all around the country, everybody’s looking ahead and past people, and that’s why they’re getting upset all across the country. The last two weeks, we’ve seen more upsets than we have in a long time. So keeping that in mind, I think we have a mature enough team that’s focused enough to not do that. But we also know that an in-state rival and a team that has nothing to lose, it’s very difficult. So I don’t think it’s going to be an easy game.”
Arizona (9-0, 0-0 Pac-12) at Northern Arizona (5-4, 2-0 Big Sky)
When and where
The game will be played in the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz. at 4 p.m. MST on Friday, Dec. 17.
How to watch
The game will be streamed on ESPN+.
How to listen
In-game stats are available on NAU Live Stats.
Arizona is ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press, No. 8 by the WBCA, and No. 8 by the NET. NAU is not ranked by the AP or the coaches, but its NET ranking is No. 118.
“I think it’s going to be a hard game. They’re coached well. They play hard. Playing against mid-major schools is difficult because a lot of times you play against four guards, so then it puts our post players in difficult situations. So definitely cannot overlook anybody. We are not thinking about Texas. Now, Texas is not on our radar. We are thinking about NAU and figuring out a way to beat them.”
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