Arizona set off on a rare bus ride to Flagstaff on Thursday ahead of Friday night’s game against Northern Arizona, which features two former Pima Community College standouts, including the Aztecs’ career scoring and assist leader — senior point guard J.J. Nakai.
Sierra Mich’l, a junior forward, also played two years for Todd Holthaus’ program at Pima.
The game will be at NAU’s spacious Walkup Skydome at 4 p.m. It will be televised live on ESPN-Plus and broadcast live on radio at KTUC (1400-AM).
It will be only the second time in the last 24 years that Arizona has played at NAU.
Fourth-ranked Arizona (9-0 with its highest ranking in the regular season in program history) has played at NAU 15 times since the inception of the Wildcats’ program in 1972-73 and they have a 9-6 record. They last played at NAU — at the Rolle Activity Center — on Dec. 7, 2017 and the Lumberjacks rolled to an 84-66 win.
That was Adia Barnes’ second season at Arizona when the Wildcats finished 6-24 and Sam Thomas was a freshman.
“I remember it was a tough game for us,” Thomas said. “I mean, freshman year was tough, in general. 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 I definitely want to come back. We’ve beat them since then, but I want to beat them at NAU this time.”
Friday’s game is part of a three-year contract with NAU that started last season when the Lumberjacks played at McKale Center. NAU will again play in Tucson next season. Barnes wants to extend that deal because of how that’s good for the budgets of both programs due to the proximity of the schools.
“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.
Nakai is averaging 6.5 points in 13.5 minutes per game for fifth-year coach Loree Payne, a former standout with the Washington Huskies.
Mich’l is averaging 7.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game.
Nakai returned for NAU (5-4) for the first time this season in its 89-73 loss at home to Cal Baptist last Saturday. She sat out the Lumberjacks’ first seven games for personal reasons. She had 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range in the game.
“When I first went it I had to get those jitters out. But it’s just something I’ve been doing in practice, so it just started coming back to me and I started relaxing,” Nakai told the Arizona Daily Sun.
Nakai went scoreless in 10 minutes against Cal Poly in NAU’s most recent game Monday, a 88-73 win for the Lumberjacks.
Arizona (9-0) enters the game without injured post player Lauren Ware (dislocated knee) for the second consecutive game. She sat out Sunday’s 77-60 win against New Mexico at McKale Center wearing a knee brace on her right leg. Barnes mentioned after the game that Ware will be out at least 10 days before the health of her knee will be assessed.
The game against NAU is the first of four straight games on the road. The Wildcats face No. 11 Texas at Las Vegas on Sunday. The Wildcats begin Pac-12 play at USC on New Year’s Eve followed by a Jan. 2 game at UCLA.
They return home Jan. 7 to face Washington State.
Alabama graduate transfer Ariyah Copeland started in place of Ware against the Lobos and did not score and finished with four rebounds in eight minutes. The low production was a result of the game played at a high pace with New Mexico featuring a small lineup.
Madison Conner and Helena Pueyo combined to make eight 3-pointers with Conner finishing with a career-high 15 points.
Cate Reese achieved her 19th career double-double (14 points and 12 rebounds).
The Wildcats are 9-0 for just the fourth time in program history. A win over NAU would improve Arizona to 10-0 for only the second time in school history. During the 2019-20 season, Arizona opened 13-0, the best start in program history.
Arizona — Barnes is only two wins shy of achieving her 100th win at Arizona in her sixth season at her alma mater. Her record is 98-66 (which is also her career mark). Making that record especially impressive is the fact that Barnes started 20-40 in her first two seasons of rebuilding the program.
NAU — Payne is in her fifth season at NAU and has a 56-74 record. She is 186-132 overall including a 130-58 record in seven seasons at Division III Pugent Sound.
WHEN ARIZONA HAS THE BALL
— Cate Reese moved into 11th place on Arizona’s all-time scoring list against New Mexico with 1,278 points. She is 21 points shy of tying Dana Patterson (1985-88) at the No. 10 spot. Reese has 19 career double-doubles ranking sixth in Arizona history.
— Helena Pueyo is a 6-foot versatile guard/wing who has led Arizona in assists a team-high four times this season. She has 26 assists (an average of 2.8 a game) with only 10 turnovers.
— Sam Thomas ranks second in the Pac-12 with a 3.4 assist/turnover ratio (20 assists, six turnovers). She is averaging 8.4 points a game while shooting 50 percent from the field (27 of 54), including an impressive 45.7 percent from 3-point range (16 of 35).
— Emily Rodabaugh, a 6-foot forward from Lynnwood, Wash., leads NAU with 13 steals and 12 blocked shots. Former Pima standout forward Sierra Mich’l is next with 11 blocked shots.
— NAU is allowing 73.3 points a game while Arizona is scoring at an average of 73.1 points a game. The Lumberjacks’ defense is allowing opponents to shoot 41.2 percent from the field. Arizona is shooting 45.9 percent from the field.
WHEN NAU HAS THE BALL
— Payne’s Pacific Northwest recruting presence is evidenced by three perimeter players from Oregon — Khiarica Rasheed, Nina Radford and Lauren Orndoff — being NAU’s top scorers. They combine to average 32.8 points a game.
— Rasheed has moved into third on NAU’s career scoring list, passing Jess LeBlanc’s 1,450 points and sitting at 1,521 in her career. Rasheed is now 157 behind Alyssa Wahl to tie second place.
— Regan Schenk, who is from Woodinville, Wash., leads the Lumberjacks with 6.6 assists per game.
— NAU is averaging 77.6 points a game while Arizona’s defense is one of the best in the nation allowing only 49.1 points a game. The Lumberjacks are at an impressive shooting percentage of 48.2 percent, but the Wildcats are holding opponents to only 32.2 percent shooting from the field.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District