Reno now 2.5 games up on Northern Arizona for final playoff spot in West
Despite facing challenges for most of the 2017-18 season, in part due to several lineup changes brought on by trades and/or NBA call-ups, the Northern Arizona Suns seem to have found stability in late February as the stretch run begins.
The Suns took a step back, however, on Tuesday night, losing ground on the Reno Bighorns for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NBA Gatorade League’s Western Conference in a 132-125 setback to the Bighorns at Prescott Valley Event Center.
Reno snapped Northern Arizona’s four-game winning streak and currently stands 2.5 games ahead of the Suns for the No. 6 seed.
“It was a bad effort from everybody defensively, even though we did well on the offensive end,” Suns guard Archie Goodwin said. “We tighten that up, we win that game easily.”
Six Bighorns scored in double figures, paced by starting guard Marcus Williams’ game-high 32 points and forward JaKarr Sampson’s 29 points and seven rebounds. Williams converted 5 of 7 3-pointers and added eight assists and six rebounds. Aaron Harrison chimed in with 24 points off the bench.
Reno’s 1-1 on their current season-long six-game road trip, and the Bighorns will return to PV Event Center at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 4, for a rematch.
“We’re trying to go 4-0 the rest of the way [on this trip],” Williams said. “It’s kind of a sense of urgency for us. Our goal is just to get to the playoffs and try and make some noise. We had some guys make some tough shots [Tuesday]. There were a lot of baskets and a lot of defensive stops late in the game that kinda kept them a couple possessions away.”
Reno, which had lost three of its last four heading into Tuesday, snapped a four-game losing streak on the road. The Bighorns shot 53 percent from the field (49 of 93, 11 of 19 from beyond the arc).
“We knew it was an important game, and we knew we had to come out here and fight because they’re a good team,” Harrison said. “We’re playing really well as a team. We have so much talent on this team that we’re pretty hard to beat.”
Playing in front of an announced attendance of 1,220, the Suns drained 20 3-pointers on a whopping 45 attempts for 44 percent and converted 25 of 30 from the free-throw line. But they committed 18 turnovers, which resulted in 26 points for the Bighorns, and they allowed 35 fast-break points.
“We were giving away possessions on offense, and we did a great job on the defensive glass for a majority of the game, until the end,” Suns coach Cody Toppert said. “So, every time we got right where we wanted to get to, and we even got a stop, now they’re getting an offensive rebound, now they’re getting a second and third opportunity. They took advantage of our miscues. It was a giveaway.”
Point guard Josh Gray led the Suns with 29 points (5 of 10 3-pointers), eight assists, six rebounds and two steals. Forward Danuel House (24 points behind a team-best six treys, eight boards, five assists) and Goodwin (24 points behind 10 of 14 from the line, seven rebounds, three assists) also stood out for the hosts.
Northern Arizona, which carried a six-game winning streak at home into Tuesday, owns a 20-20 overall record with 10 games left in the regular season. The Bighorns improved to 22-17.
“We just have to respond, play better as a whole unit and be mindful that we’re trying to make a playoff run,” Gray said.
The Suns will play seven of their final 10 contests at PV Event Center. That may still give them a leg up in pursuit of the franchise’s first playoff berth since the Phoenix Suns relocated their former G League affiliate, the Bakersfield Jam of California, to Prescott Valley before the 2016-17 season.
“We have to stay with our identity, and what we do and what we know,” Toppert said. “It [the loss] is part of the learning process, the growth process, for all these guys.”
Northern Arizona’s home record stands at 10-8 after a 4-7 start at PVEC. … Starting shooting guard Xavier Silas will return to the Suns’ lineup today. Silas has been training and playing with USA Basketball’s World Cup Qualifying Team since Feb. 15. … Two Bighorns players, David Stockton and Harrison, made the trip to Prescott Valley, although they, too, had been with Team USA Monday night in Santa Cruz, California. Stockton did not dress.
The Suns visit another Pacific Division opponent, the Santa Cruz Warriors (19-19 going into Tuesday), at 8 tonight. Northern Arizona’s 2-0 against the Warriors this season. The Suns return home for their fourth game of the week when they play host to the Memphis Hustle at 7 p.m. Friday.
Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at email@example.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.