NCU teams shooting for national tourneys

The Register-Guard article by Bob Clark

RGThere is another men’s college basketball team in Eugene leading its league.

That would be Northwest Christian University, which hasn’t lost since Dec. 6, has risen to No. 8 in the latest NAIA Division II poll and has a coach who offers a familiar-sounding cautionary refrain.

“We haven’t won anything yet” NCU coach Luke Jackson said.

What the Beacons have done is left everybody trying to keep up, including the team that shares the Morse Center, the NCU women, who are currently fourth in the Cascade Collegiate Conference standings, and like the men, bidding to host a game in the conference playoffs later this month.

“I’m really proud of what we’re building and who we’re becoming and being beside the men’s program … they’re doing great things that we’re just trying to catch up to,” NCU women’s coach Heath Alexander said.

With three weeks left in the regular season, the NCU men (20-4 overall) lead the CCC at 13-1, with Southern Oregon at 12-2 and Warner Pacific at 10-4. In the women’s standings, Southern Oregon leads at 13-1 with Oregon Tech at 12-2, Eastern Oregon at 12-3 and NCU (15-8 overall) at 10-4. Both the NCU men and women, who play doubleheaders throughout the CCC schedule, are home for four of their final six games, beginning with Evergreen State College on Friday and Northwest University on Saturday.

“It’s going to be an interesting outcome,” NCU director of athletics Corey Anderson said. “Our guys playing for a conference championship and the women for at least a top four finish,” and a potential home doubleheader in the quarterfinals of the CCC tournament, which determines berths in the national tournament next month.

Certainly this is the kind of success Anderson envisioned when he chose each of his coaches for their first head coaching job in college basketball, some of that decision based on associations with both of them that go back to at least all of their days at the University of Oregon.

Jackson, an all-American player for the Ducks, has been at NCU a year longer than Alexander and had some immediate positive results when his first team of two years ago surprisingly reached the national tournament.

His current team, on a 13-game winning streak, includes two senior starters that began in the program with Jackson — leading scorer Javonte Byrd (14.2) and Oregon transfer Austin Kuemper.

His latest team, Jackson said, is much deeper than the one that reached the national tournament in 2014, illustrated by the fact that six players score on average in double figures and no one plays more than 28 minutes. Also among the double-figure scorers are senior Omar Richards and junior reserve Jay Mayernik, who are in the top 10 in the CCC in rebounding average, and freshman point guard Kenny Blackwell, who is among the league leaders in assists.

Similarly, Alexander said a key for the NCU women has been the melding of players he has added to the group he inherited and, again, it’s been a balanced approach similar to the men’s team’s. The five starters all average about 27 minutes of playing time, and four reserves play at least 10 minutes.

Senior starters Sami Pitts and Andrea Gloss provide valuable experience along with three senior reserves, but all told, five players average nine or more points, led by junior Niki Duncan (13.5), who joined the team at midseason from Lane Community College.

Hanna Mack, a Marist graduate who is the team’s top rebounder and the league’s leading shot blocker, transferred to NCU from Eastern Washington, and the 6-foot-4 sophomore’s presence on the inside helps explain NCU’s being the conference’s top defensive team in terms of opponent’s field goal percentage.

That’s a nice combination with the offense where “our starting five, any one of them can get 20 (points),” Alexander said. “That’s why we’re hard to guard.”

And almost as difficult to beat as the NCU men.

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