FLAGSTAFF, Ariz., Feb. 8 – Chris Yanku scored just eight points for Northern Arizona Saturday night but every one of them was critical as he hit 8-of-8 free throws in the final 2:01 to help the Lumberjacks hold off Southern Utah, 64-57.
As a team NAU knocked down 22-of-24 free throws while Southern Utah’s inability to convert from the line, particularly in the second half, perhaps cost the Thunderbirds an opportunity to pick up their first Big Sky win of the season. The T-Birds converted just 6-of-14 free throws, 3-of-10 in the second half, and misfired on the front end of three second period 1-and-1 situations.
The Thunderbirds did almost everything else well, shooting the ball well from the field and defending well, making 24-of-48 shots on the night while holding the Lumberjacks to just 19-of-49, 38.8 percent, and dishing out 13 assists.
Southern Utah fell behind by 12-2 early but battled back to pull within 33-27 at halftime. NAU scored the first basket of the second half but SUU answered with five straight as Casey Oliverson scored inside and Eric Rippetoe hit a 3-pointer to make it a 35-32 game.
The Thunderbirds continued to battle, taking their first lead since 2-0 when John Marshall converted a 3-point play to make it a 41-39 game with 11:50 to play.
From that point it was a back-and-forth affair, with three ties and three lead changes over the next seven minutes. With 4:20 to play Oliverson had a chance to make it a 51-51 game but missed two free throws to leave the Thunderbirds down 51-49 and Quinton Upshur hit a 3-pointer to make it a 54-49 contest.
After Trey Kennedy missed a 3-point attempt Aaseem Dixon hit two free throws to stake the Lumberjacks to a 56-49 advantage with 3:11 to play. Marshall pulled SUU within 56-51 with a layup at the 2:35 mark, but Rippetoe fouled Yanku on a layup attempt with 2:01 to go, beginning the true freshman guard’s parade to the free throw line.
After Yanku converted his free throws Jaren Jeffery scored inside for SUU to make it a 58-53 game, and after two more Yanku free throws following a Cal Hanks foul Marshall converted another 3-point play to bring SUU within 60-56.
The next time down the floor Yanku drove to the basket again but his shot missed and Hanks grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Max Jacobsen, giving the Thunderbirds the opportunity to close the gap. Hanks hit his first free throw to make it a one-possession game with 29 seconds to play, but missed his second, leaving the Thunderbirds down 60-57.
With time running down the Thunderbirds were forced to foul and Yanku went to the line and coolly hit two more free throws with 24.9 seconds to play, making it a 62-57 game. After another SUU miss Yanku grabbed the rebound, was fouled and put the game on ice with his final two free throws.
Marshall finished with a career-high tying 10 points to lead SUU, while Upshur scored 20 to lead the Lumberjacks.
SUU dipped to 1-19 and 0-11 in Big Sky play while NAU improved to 10-13 overall and 7-5 in league play.
The Thunderbirds continue their road trip at Sacramento State on Monday night.