NAU Jacks on the rise under Jack MurphyPosted: Updated:
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Had Northern Arizona's season ended on March 13, it would have been deemed successful. The Lumberjacks lost that day, but still had four more wins than the season before and reached the semifinals of the Big Sky tournament.
When Northern Arizona kept playing and kept winning in the College Insider Tournament, it transformed the season from good to great, invigorating the program and its fan base.
"They weren't satisfied; they wanted to do things that had never been done here and they did that," Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy said of his players.
When Murphy arrived in Flagstaff, he pointed toward the third season as the breakthrough year.
The Lumberjacks certainly were in good position, with eight returning players, including four of their top five scorers.
Northern Arizona had a solid regular season, finishing third in the Big Sky after starting conference play 3-3, then reached the semifinals of the conference tournament, where it lost to Montana by two.
It turned out to be a prelude to the main event.
After winning 18 games during the regular season and conference tournament, Northern Arizona accepted an invite to the CIT.
The Lumberjacks had an intriguing opening-round game, facing neighboring Grand Canyon in Phoenix. Northern Arizona won that game despite Murphy having to sit out due to a suspension for an altercation with Montana coach Travis DeCuire in the conference tournament. They followed that with another road victory, against Big Sky foe Sacramento State, which had gone undefeated at home in Big Sky games during the regular season.
Momentum really started building after that.
The Lumberjacks gained some attention from a sometimes-blase fan base by hosting a CIT game against Kent State and put a charge into them by scoring six points in the final 30 seconds to win 74-73 in overtime.
The fans stormed the court after the improbable victory and the buildup for the CIT semifinal against New Jersey Institute of Technology was unprecedented in program history.
With a school-record 5,583 fans cheering them on inside the Walkup Skydome, the Lumberjacks set off another court storming by beating NJIT 68-61 to reach the CIT title game.
Northern Arizona lost to Evansville in the CIT championship game, but finished with a school-record 23 wins and ended up being the last of Arizona's four Division I programs to still be playing in April.
"It started when Coach Murphy got here," senior Quinton Upshur said. "Last year was another step in the right direction and then this has been like two or three steps in the right direction."
It has been a nice climb.
Northern Arizona won 11 games in Murphy's first season and went 15-17 to finish tied for second in the Big Sky a year ago despite losing leading scorer Dwayne Russell three days before the season.
The Lumberjacks strengthened the foundation this season by winning games and gaining support from fans across the campus and community, a combination that should be a boon for Murphy in recruiting.
When he first arrived and even into last season, Murphy's big selling points to recruits were the picturesque campus and promises of change.
After this season, Murphy has proof the program is on an upward path and still has the scenic campus as a backup.
"Not only are you over the hump with Year 3, I feel like we're set up for the future," Murphy said.