Northern Arizona’s Burcar building toward a bigger future

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Shane Burcar sits in the front row of the large auditorium as a thunderstorm rolls over Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks onto the Northern Arizona campus.

The wall of windows on the room’s north side offers a perfect view of the lightning strikes and approaching rain moving through the pine trees.

The building the auditorium is in, the new $47 million Student-Athlete High Performance Center, gives Burcar something he’s never had in four years as Northern Arizona’s coach: a top-of-the-line facility to show prospective basketball recruits.

“It really is a game-changer,” Burcar said. “When we’re competing with a (similar) school, nobody has a better facility than us. I don’t say that to brag or say anything negative about another school, but there’s nobody who has this right now.”

The performance center, which opened in April, could be the missing piece Burcar needs to get NAU back on the right track. The Lumberjacks have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2000 and notched single-digit wins five of the past seven seasons.

Burcar was named interim coach in 2019, when Jack Murphy left to coach at his alma mater, Arizona. The Lumberjacks won 16 games in Burcar’s first season, earning him the permanent job, but have been unable to keep up that pace.

Northern Arizona labored through a pandemic-altered 2020-21 season – as did many other programs – to win six games and went 9-16 last year with one of Division I’s youngest teams.

The Lumberjacks could be poised to round the corner toward a better future.

This year’s team returns all five starters, bringing a year of experience with them.

Junior guard Jalen Cone averaged 18.8 points last season after transferring from Virginia Tech and is expected to take on more of a leadership role. Nik Mains, a 6-foot-8 stretch forward, opted to return instead of hitting the transfer portal after averaging 11.5 points last year. Junior forward Keith Haymon also is back for his fourth season in Flagstaff after averaging 9.8 points a year ago.

Burcar dipped into the transfer portal to land South Dakota guard Xavier Fuller, Grand Canyon guard Liam Lloyd – Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd’s son – and Central Connecticut State guard Trenton McLaughlin.

Northern Arizona also added freshmen C.J. Ford, Oakland Fort, Preston Kilbert and Jack Wistrcill, all of whom should have an impact on the program this season and beyond.

“The trajectory is absolutely to move up the standings,” Burcar said. “I would say if we don’t win it all, we will certainly have a bye in the first round of the Big Sky tournament. I don’t think that’s a pipe dream at all.”

The new performance center could keep filling up the talent pipeline.

Northern Arizona coaches could always sell the school’s picturesque campus, but the facilities were not on the same level. The Lumberjacks play most of their early-season home games at the Rolle Center, which is shared with multiple sports and PE classes, and the massive Walkup Skydome once football season ends.

The three-story, 72,000-square-foot performance center has two full basketball courts with a video screen in between, massive weight and training rooms, academic and nutrition centers, and multiple meeting rooms.

It also has the room with a view.

“The building kind of sells itself,” Burcar said. “We saw it with our camps this year, the high school coaches coming up and, ‘OK, they’re serious about winning.’ You can see pictures of it, but when you get here and touch it and walk on it, it’s a whole different deal.”

Burcar has a grand view for the program and it’s not just the one out the back window of the auditorium.

Kispert, Ayayi lead No. 1 Gonzaga over Dixie State 112-67

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

SPOKANE, Wash. — For the second night in a row, Joel Ayayi put up a double-double as top-ranked Gonzaga beat an overmatched foe.

Ayayi had 21 points and 11 rebounds, Corey Kispert scored 25 points and the Bulldogs beat short-handed Dixie State 112-67 on Tuesday night.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said it took some prodding to help Ayayi break out of a recent scoring slump, and that is paying off.

“He’s hunting his shot better,” Few said. “He has a knack for tracking the ball down and knowing where it’s going.”

Ayayi had 17 points and 10 rebounds in Monday’s win over Northern Arizona.

“I’m amazed he’s had back-to-back double doubles,” Few said of the slightly-built Ayayi, a junior who is 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds. “Who’d had thought that with the body he has?”

Ayayi added six assists and was 8-of-9 shooting from the floor.

“He’s too good to be held down for long,” Kispert said of Ayayi.

Kispert, who leads the team in scoring, made 10 of his 16 shots.

Oumar Ballo added 17 points on 6-of-6 shooting for Gonzaga (9-0), which has won 43 consecutive home games, the longest streak in the nation.

Cameron Gooden scored 20 points, Jacob Nicholds had 11 and Jacob Greene 10 for Dixie State (4-2), which is in the first year of its transition to Division I basketball. The Trailblazers were down to nine players because of COVID-19 protocols and injuries.

“When you play a team like this you have to play the best game of your life to beat them, and it wasn’t ours tonight,” Dixie State coach Jon Judkins said. “You can learn from wins and you can learn from losses, and tonight we hope that we can watch the film and get better.”

Gonzaga was playing for the second consecutive night and the sixth time in 10 days.

Star Gonzaga freshman Jalen Suggs missed a second consecutive game with a right leg injury suffered last weekend in a win over Virginia.

“We decided to give him another day of rest,” Few said. “Hopefully he’ll be ready to roll against San Francisco.”

Dixie State tried to run with the Zags in the first half but could not sustain the pace. Ayayi scored 10 points as Gonzaga jumped to a 30-18 lead in the opening eight minutes, and the Bulldogs shot 70% to lead 36-24 after 12 minutes.

Kispert hit a pair of 3-pointers and Ayayi added one during a 13-2 run that lifted Gonzaga to a 49-26 lead late in the first half. The Bulldogs led 63-38 at the break after shooting 66.7%. Ayayi had 19 points in the first and Kispert had 12. Dixie State shot 48.5% in the first.

Gonzaga extended its lead to 30 points early in the second half and the Trailblazers faded.


Gonzaga had 72 points in the paint compared to 40 for Dixie State. The Zags also shot 60% in the game, compared to 42.9% for Dixie State.


Dixie State committed 20 turnovers, which the Zags converted into 30 points. The Zags had just seven turnovers in the game.


Gonzaga should remain atop the Top 25 for an eighth week if it beats San Francisco on Saturday.


Dixie State: The Trailblazers, based in St. George, Utah, spent the past decade as an NCAA Division II power. The Western Athletic Conference team has four returning starters and came in averaging better than 80 points per game.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs, coming off a 30-point win over Northern Arizona on Monday, are second in the nation with an average of 94.3 points per game and third in shooting at 55%. Kispert (20.6) and Drew Timme (20.6) lead the West Coast Conference in scoring. The Bulldogs have won 30 of their past 31 games.


Dixie State hosts Sagu American Indian College on Saturday.

Gonzaga hosts San Francisco in its WCC opener on Saturday. Few admitted that he hasn’t paid much attention to the league yet. “San Francisco is somebody that plays really tough,” Few said. “We have to be ready to go every night out.”

No. 7 Arizona women hold off No. 9 UCLA 68-65

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona had stretches of offensive consistency, struggled keeping UCLA off the offensive glass and had some defensive breakdowns in transition.

The Wildcats made up for it with a dominating third quarter and some big plays down the stretch to beat a top-10 team.

Not a bad way to kick off the Pac-12 season, no matter how it looked.

Trinity Baptiste had 18 points and 11 rebounds, Aari McDonald added 17 points and No. 7 Arizona held off No. 9 UCLA 68-65 on Friday night.

“It was a very ugly win,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “Normally, you play these type of games another month from now, so it’s a big difference playing in early December. Both teams, you’re not as sharp, less cohesiveness.”

Arizona (2-0) went up eight on a 3-pointer by Baptiste, but the Bruins rallied with a 9-1 run, pulling within 67-65 on Charisma Osborne’s 3-pointer with 12 seconds left.

Arizona’s Cate Reese made 1 of 2 free throws to give UCLA (1-1) a last chance and the Bruins worked the ball around to Osborne. Her 3-pointer with 5 seconds left hit the back of the rim and UCLA couldn’t get off another shot after Michaela Onyenwere grabbed the offensive rebound.

“We got a good look, I just missed the shot,” Osborne said.

Arizona labored early against the physical Bruins and shot 6 of 25 from 3-point range. The Wildcats made up for it with stifling defense in the third quarter and some big shots late to win the first meeting with both teams in the top-10 since 1998.

UCLA used an 18-4 run spanning the first and second quarters to go up nine, but missed 17 of 18 shots in the third quarter as Arizona surged into the lead. Osborne led UCLA with 15 points, and Onyenwere finished with 13 points and 16 rebounds.

“We’re going to look at the film and there’s going to be a lot of little things we didn’t take care of that allowed them to make the run that they, did,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, who was denied her 200th career win.

Both teams entered this pandemic-shifted season with lofty expectations.

Arizona had highest ranking ever at No. 7 in The Associated Press preseason poll with the return of McDonald, a preseason All-American, Reese and Sam Thomas.

The Wildcats opened the season with a 16-point win over Northern Arizona.

UCLA had four players return from a 26-win team last season and opened at No. 9 in the AP Top 25. The Bruins crushed Cal State Fullerton 98-59 in their opener before having Sunday’s game against Pepperdine postponed due to coronavirus concerns.

Defense dominated early in the desert showdown.

UCLA led 14-12 after the first quarter despite going more than six minutes without a field and opened the second with an 11-2 run to go up nine. The Bruins led 38-32 at halftime.

The Bruins went cold again in the third quarter, missing 16 straight shots during a scoreless drought of nearly 6 1/2 minutes. Arizona took advantage, going on a 9-0 run to go up 48-42.

“We sort of panicked and started going one on one,” Close said. “Against a team with the athleticism and defensive prowess of Arizona, that’s not a good idea.”

UCLA began hitting shots again in the fourth quarter to pull within 58-56 with three minutes left. McDonald followed with a putback and Baptiste hit a straight-on 3-pointer to pushed the lead back to eight.

The Bruins rallied, but came up just short.


UCLA rallied after an abysmal third quarter, but couldn’t make it all the way back to miss a chance at a top-10 road win.

Baptiste dominated at times, McDonald came alive in the second half and Arizona held off UCLA’s late rally for a big confidence-boosting victory.


Barring a loss to Southern California on Sunday, the Wildcats should remain at No. 7 in next week’s poll, if not move up. The Bruins could still stay in the top 10 without a loss to Arizona State on Sunday.


UCLA: At Arizona State on Sunday.

Arizona: Hosts Southern California Sunday.

No. 7 Arizona pulls away in 2nd half to beat N Arizona 76-63

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
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TUCSON, Ariz. — It wasn’t the greatest offensive start of the season for preseason All-American guard Aari McDonald, who watched her first four shots clang off the rim and her Wildcats fall into an early hole.

But she found other ways to affect the game, adding a couple assists and also a few steals. By the end of the afternoon, her high-scoring ways had returned and No. 7 Arizona was well on its way to a 76-63 victory over Northern Arizona on Sunday.

In the process, McDonald learned she doesn’t have to be a superhero every game for the Wildcats to win.

“My teammates this year are making my job much easier,” McDonald said. “I can focus on other things, like I can communicate, I can lockdown on defense. But I’m not satisfied about my performance today or the whole team’s. We’ve definitely got some improving to do.”

Cate Reese scored a game-high 21 points and McDonald added 18 and Arizona won its only scheduled non-conference game of the season.

McDonald scored in double figures for a 67th straight game, which is the nation’s longest active streak. She made just 6 of 17 of her shots but finished with eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals.

The Wildcats struggled from long range, missing their first seven 3-pointers before McDonald knocked one down late in the third quarter. But Arizona compensated with a dominant performance inside, scoring 60 points in the paint. The 6-foot-2 Reese shot 9 of 13 from the field.

“I thought she played really good,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “I’m not surprised at all. Cate’s improved so much. She played today like she does every day in practice.”

Northern Arizona (1-1) was playing its second game after beating UNLV 79-75 in the opener. The Lumberjacks jumped out to a 13-8 lead midway through the first quarter but Arizona recovered to take an 18-15 lead by the end of the period and didn’t trail again.

McDonald had a steal at mid-court to open the second quarter which led to a layup for her first field goal of game. The 5-foot-6 senior averaged more than 20 points per game last season.

Arizona led 30-24 at halftime. Northern Arizona shot just 3 of 20 (15%) from the field in the second quarter.

McDonald had another steal and layup on the first possession of the second half which helped jump-start a 31-point third quarter that led to a 61-46 advantage.

Northern Arizona was led by Jacqulynn Nakai’s 17 points. Emily Rodabaugh added 14 points and eight rebounds. The Lumberjacks slowly fell behind in the second half, unable to stop Arizona from getting close-range baskets.

NAU coach Loree Payne she was pleased her team was fearless and came out aggressive.

“They’re just a little bigger, stronger and faster,” Payne said. “You can’t match size when you don’t have it. They have some All-Americans on that team. We just wore down at the end a little.”

Arizona is trying to build off last year’s breakout season when the Wildcats finished with a 24-7 record, including a 12-4 mark in the Pac-12. It’s an experienced team that returns more than 6,000 career points, which leads the nation.

This was Arizona’s only scheduled non-conference game before 22 straight games against Pac-12 opponents.


It was a solid effort by the Lumberjacks, who should be one of the better teams in the Big Sky this season. Arizona was a little sloppy in its opener and McDonald had a off-day shooting, but she’s a proven scorer and should bounce back quickly. Reese and others were there to pick up the slack on Sunday.

“The first game was very rusty, but we haven’t played in 266 days, so I have to keep that in the back of my mind,” Barnes said. “I’m just blessed that we’re able to play. I look all around the country, and I honestly was nervous until we went in to warm up.”


NAU starts Big Sky Conference play with back-to-back road games at Eastern Washington on Thursday and Saturday.

Arizona begins its Pac-12 Conference schedule with a home game against UCLA on Friday.