A 1-3 start generally isn’t something to be optimistic about, but if you dig a little deeper beyond the surface, Northern New Mexico College mens basketball head coach Ryan Cordova has a few valid reasons to have that feeling.
The Eagles have faced somewhat of a gauntlet of a schedule in their first four games. In all four matchups, Northern has competed against competition classified above its NAIA Division II status.
Starting with the University of the Southwest — who competes in NAIA Division 1 — up to the Eagles latest loss to NCAA Division II Fort Lewis College, the competition has been anything but light.
Before Northern notched its first win of the season over NCAA Division II Western New Mexico College by a score of 76-73 on Nov. 1 at Eagle Memorial Gymnasium, the Eagles took NAIA Division 1 Oklahoma City University down to the wire in double overtime – only losing on a desperation shot near half court as the buzzer sounded.
“Over the past two weeks we’ve played two Division I NAIA schools and they’ve all had 12 scholarships,” Cordova said on Nov. 2 after the Eagles’ 87-70 loss to Fort Lewis. “We’ve played two NCAA Division II schools, who have at least 10 scholarships, and we still come out 1-3.”
To add to the optimism is Northern only carries two scholarships. Going to battle with what they have, the way they have, certainly bodes well for the near future when the Eagles begin AII conference play in December.
Regardless of who the opponent may be, the game still comes down to the ability to consistently make shots, and the Eagles were not sharp in that category in the last two games against Western and Fort Lewis.
Despite defeating the Mustangs, Northern shot 20-of-56 from the field. They did, however, receive a boost from aggressive plays toward the basket, as the Eagles shot 28 more free throws than Western.
Northern finished at 71.4 percent (35-of-49), while the Mustangs were 12-of-21.
Against Fort Lewis, missed shots would haunt the Eagles this time, specifically in the second half inside the painted area.
Northern trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half, but they were able to cut the 45-35 halftime deficit to six points on several occasions in the second half. They were never able to get over that six-point hump, mainly due to a 10-of-33 effort from the field over the final 20 minutes.
A majority of those misses were on layups or close-range shots around the basket. Northern played even keeled to Fort Lewis in most other facets of the stat sheet: outrebounding Fort Lewis by nine, equaling the Skyhawks with 22 made free throws and only committing one more turnover.
“So, with that, it comes down to field goal percentage,” Cordova said. “We shot crappy last night (against Western) and we shot bad again today, so that means our guys got to get in the gym and start shooting more shots. That’s what it comes down to, being able to make shots, honestly.”
The Skyhawks had little problem doing so, specifically in the game’s first half. Fort Lewis shot 6-of-11 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes, which included two triples apiece from Junior Garbrah and Danny Garrick.
The Skyhawks shot 45 percent from the field overall for the game and ended at 39 percent from 3. Akuel Kot notched a game-high 22 for Fort Lewis, who had four other players reach double-digits.
Naquwan Solomon led the Northern attack with 13 points, Alexander O’Guinn had 11 and Javier Roper added 10. Jeremy Anaya also scored nine and Tyrique Weaver and Estevan Martinez had eight apiece.
“This was a very good Fort Lewis team,” Cordova said. “This was not last year’s Fort Lewis team, this is a special team. They got a Nicholls State transfer (Garrick) drilling 3s 10 feet behind the 3-point line and they got (Riley) Farris back, who could be a contender for RMAC player of the year.”
The Eagles will have a rematch with Fort Lewis on Nov. 15 in Durango, but the next test will be a two-game road trip Thursday and Saturday at Southwest and at Texarkana College (Texas).