A Cinderella Run that came from one of the most unlikely places.
The Lumberjacks had been a program in perpetual stagnation since a 2015 CIT run by a jumpstart team in Flagstaff, Arizona, captured a fanbase waiting for something to cheer for following an awful ending from the previous coaching regime.
Shane Burcar came around and up from Phoenix over five years later in 2019 as an assistant, then was thrusted to interim head coach the next season, and proceeded to give Northern Arizona Lumberjack fans a run to remember. One that, even with a 12-23 record and No. 9 seed finish in the Big Sky Conference, brings them back to the days of Ben Howland leading the Jacks to the tourney — or the run to the CIT when the program seemed to be breaking through years of mediocrity.
A feel good story by a program that’s looked to finally turn that corner it has been rounding for so long. The bell lap just won’t ring.
It wouldn’t end with an NCAA Tournament bid — one that likely would have been a first-four appearance. No. 2 seed Montana State Bobcats put an end to it to claim the Big Sky Conference Tournament crown, 85-78, for the second straight season.
Take a second to read the emotion in Burcar’s voice postgame:
“I’m proud, really proud of our guys. The way they carry themselves. They’re high character on and off of the court and that’s why we’re standing here right now, because of the men in that locker room. There are many times where we could’ve said, it’s not our season. We got beat by one, we got beat on a miracle buzzer beater. But they came everyday and got better. It’s my 25th year of coaching, and I don’t rank the teams, but this is a very special group and I told them that this will be the team that will be part of when NAU basketball flipped for consistency not just a special season. Some of the naysayers will say that we still finished ninth, but they don’t know what’s going on in our locker room or on our campus and the character of our guys. To make this run, it says everything about them. It’s hard to sit up here knowing we didn’t reach our final goal with Xavier Fuller, who I’ve known since he was a little kid with his goggles on. And Jalen Cone, who took a chance on our program coming from the ACC, and Nik Mains. Nik is someone who when you talk about our program, he’s there, and when we start hanging banners up in the Skydome, these guys will be a big reason for that.”
Burcar led a team that no one, not even its most ardent supporters and fans, expected to make it half this far. Yet, was within striking distance all night in Boise, Idaho. It felt like a seven-point game from the moment the Bobcats went up seven early.
Despite the sawmill strong antics of Carson Towt; despite Xavier Fuller doing all he could to chase RaeQuan Battle around; despite Jalen Cone jumping through hoops just to get clean looks at the rim, the Bobcats were simply better. And that’s OK.
The Bobcats sent the Lumberjacks and their glass axes home at the strike midnight mountain time.
The magic was over.
From the stylings of Joe Cravens, to the on-court heroics of Oakland Fort (side note, seriously, listen to NAU announcer Mitch Strohman’s audio only call of it) and Battle game winners, the 2023 Big Sky Conference Tournament was a special one, at least to me.
It was personal. From my time covering the Lumberjacks at their lowest, to seeing the hope when Burcar first took over as the interim coach, and, to now, as a fan and blogger watching a familiar — yet novel — sight. Emotions came and went in a time of personal grief, a time when writing is my outlet to be vulnerable, thinking how much my dad would have enjoyed witnessing this with me.
While the Big Sky hasn’t won a NCAA Tournament game since 2006, there is something about this league that keeps me coming back – despite my tweets saying otherwise. The Big Sky has an endearing quality to it. You almost know what to expect each season.
You understand that Montana State has been great under Danny Sprinkle; Idaho has been a train wreck; and Montana, Weber State and Eastern Washington’s down years are still second-round appearances and about 16 wins. But, it is when that bit you don’t expect comes — NAU Cinderella Run, a player/coach/someone from Montana running onto the court in a semifinal game, Sac State being remotely competitive, Portland State coach Jace Coburn getting married on the court — is when you truly find what makes the Big Sky the Big Sky.