Photo courtesy of NAU Athletics
After a season of torment and tough losses, one of which landed as SportsCenter’s top play, the NAU Lumberjacks captured their moment in an 81-80 victory over the Eastern Washington Eagles. The hero was freshman guard Oakland Fort, who has recorded a pair of big performances in his first two Big Sky games. Fort’s 35-footer as the buzzer sounded officially welcomed the month of March in Big Sky basketball.
The Eagles entered this matchup as heavy favorites on paper, having the No. 1 seed in the tournament and NAU finishing ninth. However, a deeper look revealed the two teams streaking in opposite directions. The Lumberjacks had won three of their previous four, with the lone loss coming down to a single point in overtime. Eastern dropped their previous two after being unbeaten in conference before. However, NAU still had an uphill battle against the Big Sky’s top team.
The Lumberjacks showed that they would be no step over in the early game, keeping it close and even taking the lead on a few occasions. Both teams looked evenly matched despite the seeding discrepancy. The Lumberjacks turned early turnovers into 12 points, whereas the Eagles only managed three. NAU played level with Eastern Washington, if not better, throughout the half. Ultimately the two teams would enter the locker room tied at halftime, 35-35.
Eastern Washington’s biggest advantage was a lack of foul trouble, whereas the Lumberjacks had committed eight fouls in the first half, but they did not get to the line once.
The foul trouble for the Lumberjacks would rear an ugly head in the second half as junior guard Jalen Cone, the engine of the team’s offense, received his fourth and was forced to the bench with just under ten minutes to go in the game. Enter the Fort.
“Well Oakland made my job easier tonight,” head coach Shane Burcar said. “ Because when Oakland went in when Jalen got his fourth foul we went on a little bit of a run”
The freshman guard had played well in his tournament debut, including a huge three-point shot that all but doomed the Idaho Vandals in the final minute. This however was a much different situation, against the toughest competition the Big Sky had to offer. Fort wasted no time, draining a triple on his first shot since entering the game and further extending the lead with a layup on the following possession.
However, as good teams do, the Eagles put themselves in a position to win. A team effort saw Eastern Washington take the lead with five minutes to go. Even Cone’s return to the game seemed like it wouldn’t be enough to weather the storm as the Eagles slowly extended their lead. The Eagles entered the final minute leading by six points, and it seemed the Lumberjacks’ season would end with yet another heartbreak.
A Cone jumper with 45 seconds to go seemed to many like it may be just a consolation bucket to keep the score close.
A pair of Eastern missed free throws suddenly gave the Lumberjacks an opportunity and with some quick ball movement, sophomore Trenton McLaughlin buried a contested triple and cut the Eagles’ lead to just one.
NAU was suddenly alive again and after allowing a fast break dunk they still had the chance to tie the game with a three. With 17 seconds to go, Burcar called a timeout to draw up a play for his star guard.
Cone got the ball and quickly advanced to the wing. A screen from Fort gave Cone an opening. As he pulled up, however, he drew contact from an Eastern defender who came flying out on a closeout. Cone was sent to the line with a chance to tie the game.
Cone stepped up for a trio of free throws that could make or break NAU’s season… and missed the first one. The junior kept his composure however and nailed the other two in order to keep the Jacks’ hopes at least alive.
However NAU needed to foul in order to keep the game alive, and the Eagles got the ball in the hands of their star and Big Sky Player of the Year, redshirt sophomore Steele Venters.
Venters was 65-74 on the season and he showed tremendous composure to drain the first attempt at the line, extending Eastern’s lead to two. Another free throw from Venters ensured NAU could do no more than tie with another shot, but the Big Sky Player of the Year missed the second and NAU was off and running.
As Jalen Cone received the ball from McLaughlin, he pushed the tempo and attempted to weave through the Eastern defenders. Cone wouldn’t make it far past the three-point line before being double-teamed however and had to dish the ball behind him.
There, Fort received the ball with a second left, 35 feet from the basket. He released the ball moments before the buzzer sounded and a whole season hung in the balance.
“I knew it was cash,” Fort said after the game.
Just as the guard thought, the ball found its way straight to the bottom of the net, sending the Lumberjacks to the conference semi-final.
NAU will now face the winner of Monday’s quarterfinal between Weber State and Montana. The Lumberjacks seem to be peaking at the right time and now get a day to rest, but will be eagerly watching their opponents to see where their run will take them next. The semi-final will tip off at 5:30 on Tuesday, March 7, viewable on ESPN+.