February 26, 2011

Men's basketball chops the 'Jacks, moves back into first

RELATED CLICKS:
Box score | Play-by-play | NC season stats | B.J. Hill KFKA postgame | Devon Beitzel KFKA postgame | Big Sky standings

GREELEY -- Northern Colorado got the help it needed Saturday night and then took care of business against Northern Arizona in a 72-71 win at a raucous Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.

The Bears (17-10, 11-3 Big Sky) got 23 points from Devon Beitzel, 17 from Neal Kingman and 12 from Chris Kaba as they got past the Lumberjacks for the fourth time in six games and the fifth consecutive time in Greeley.

Gabe Rogers led NAU (17-11, 8-7) with 27 points, and Cameron Jones put in 24.

The victory, paired with Montana's 59-55 overtime upset loss at Eastern Washington earlier Saturday, pushed Northern Colorado to the top line of the Big Sky Conference standings with just two games to play.

The Bears control their destiny now and will claim the 2011 Big Sky Conference regular-season championship if they win at Idaho State on Monday night and then defeat Sacramento State in Greeley on Wednesday.

If it wins both, Northern Colorado will earn the No. 1 seed in this year's Big Sky Championship and will host the semifinals and finals on March 8 and 9. That would mean the road to this year's Big Sky's NCAA Tournament bid would run right through Greeley, where Northern Colorado is 11-0 this season and 24-2 over the last two years.

"We've just got to take care of business," Beitzel said. "We've got to take it one game at a time, and make sure we get our rest in between games because it is such a quick turnaround. We've just got to take care of business and try to get these two wins."

Beitzel, who finished just six of 19 from the field Saturday but still scored at least 20 points for the 16th time this season, hit two free throws with 8.6 seconds remaining to put the Bears ahead 72-69.

Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill had Beitzel foul NAU's Stallon Saldivar on the Lumberjacks' ensuing inbounds play, and Saldivar hit both of his free-throw attempts with seven seconds left to make it 72-71.

Beitzel was immediately fouled on the Bears' following possession, but with the near sold-out crowd making hardly a peep, he missed both of his charity shots with six seconds left.

"I couldn't believe those shots didn't go in," said Beitzel, who entered the game ranked fifth in the country in free-throw shooting.

NAU's Eric Platt grabbed Beitzel's second miss and got a pass out to Jones, who, with Beitzel in his face, attempted a heave from near halfcourt that didn't find the net.

"(Beitzel) did a good job of just picking (Jones) up and trying to make him take some time and work him up the floor," Hill said. "This tells you what type of kid he is. (Tonight was) by far his worst shooting night of the year, but he found another way to help us win.

"It wasn't pretty, but, like Coach (Earnest) Collins just told me: 'It doesn't matter by one or 20." It doesn't matter; it's a 'W,' And he's right. Our guys gutted it out. We didn't play our best game by any stretch but they gutted it out and just found a way. That's what good teams do, I guess."

Kingman, who scored just 28 points in six games between Jan. 29 and Feb. 12, continued his recent surge Saturday with a six-of-14 effort to go along with four rebounds, two assists and a steal.

Kaba, who hit a 3-pointer with 3:04 to play to end a 6-1 run by NAU and pull the Bears within two, at 67-65, only missed two shots in the game (4-6) and had six rebounds, a career-high tying four assists and two steals. 

"When (Kaba and Kingman) are playing well it's huge for us," Beitzel said. "Two more scoring options, and it really spreads the defense out. When they are making shots and making plays, we are a really hard team to guard."

Coming into the game, NAU had the statistical edge over Northern Colroado in almost every area, including points per game, shooting percentage and three-point shooting percentage.

That played out Saturday, too, with the Lumberjacks outshooting the Bears 50 percent to 37 percent, hitting 43 percent of their 3-pointers to Northern Colorado's 35 percent and grabbing 39 boards to the Bears' 29.

But whenever the momentum would sway in NAU's favor, the season-high crowd of 2,755 roared to a level not heard in Butler since the Bears moved to NCAA Division I.

"We love to see this place packed like it was tonight," Beitzel said. "It gives us energy out there on the floor. When things aren't going well, having them get on their feet and get us going? I mean, that's huge. If it wasn't for them, I don't think we would have gotten this win.

"We're one game away from behing undefeated at home for the season, and if we get this type of crowd, we could do that a lot."