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Mike Lopresti | | February 13, 2023

Northern Arizona, college basketball's most star-crossed team, deserves better

The deepest game-winning buzzer beaters in March Madness history

All right, who out there put the curse on poor Shane Burcar?

Burcar is the coach for Northern Arizona, and considering what’s been going on with his basketball team, he’s lucky he hasn’t been hit by a meteorite. Maybe you saw the latest piano to fall on his head Saturday.

Northern Arizona was at home against Portland State and down 86-78 with 81 seconds left, but the Lumberjacks then went on a 9-0 tear to apparently win 87-86 on Liam Lloyd’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. Celebration time! Except replays showed it wasn’t quite at the buzzer. The decision was made to put .4 seconds on the clock, which isn’t much but long enough for Portland State’s Hunter Woods to throw a court-length Hail Mary pass and for Isaiah Johnson to leap up and catch it and more or less shove it toward the goal 12 feet away. Volleyball spikes almost take longer. It banked in. Northern Arizona lost 88-87.

UNBELIEVABLE: Portland State men's basketball drills an impossible game-winner at the buzzer

“That’s heartbreak hotel right there,” Burcar said afterward. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”

Oh, if only it were a one-shot misery for his Lumberjacks.

Go back to Nov. 12. The season was not yet a week old when Northern Arizona took current WAC leader Utah Valley to the wire before losing 73-69. That was only the beginning.

On Dec. 10, the Lumberjacks played Utah Valley again — a rare second meeting for teams in different conferences — and came roaring back from 11 points behind in the second half to tie. But then lost in overtime. “You always live in the moment when you’re building for the season but it’s tough on a Saturday when you fight like that,” Burcar said that night.

A week later, Northern Arizona went to Southern Utah. The Lumberjacks lost 106-101 in overtime even though they had 10 more field goals and junior guard Jalen Cone scored 45 points. How? The hometown Thunderbirds had a 42-13 gap in free throws. Burcar that night: “It hurts. We had a four-point lead in overtime and couldn’t hold it. To state the obvious, 51 free throw attempts to 21 free throw attempts, that’s going to be hard to overcome no matter what you do.”

On. Jan. 12 Northern Arizona traveled to Portland State. The Lumberjacks rallied from 17 points down and were ahead by six points with 28 seconds left. Then they missed four consecutive free throws. Hunter Woods hit one 3-pointer for Portland State and then another at the buzzer to beat Northern Arizona. The same Hunter Woods who a month later would throw a fullcourt pass so Isaiah Johnson could beat Northern Arizona at the buzzer again. Burcar on another nightmare: “I feel for our guys and I feel for everybody involved.”

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On Jan. 14, Northern Arizona lost by three points at Sacramento State.

On Jan. 19, the Lumberjacks lost by five points at home to Idaho. Two days after that, they were beaten by three points by Eastern Washington, letting go of a five-point lead with under three minutes to go.

The month soon changed. Northern Arizona’s luck did not.

On Feb. 2, the Lumberjacks lost in the last three seconds by one point at Montana State.

Two days later, they lost in the last 11 seconds by one point at Montana. “We have to get better at the end of the game, and I’m putting that on me,” Burcar said that day. “You sit in a hotel room for 12 hours and try to figure out how to win a game at the end.”

Two days after that, they went home and led Idaho State for 30 minutes. But after 40 minutes, they had lost by five. “Here we go again, sitting here,” Burcar said afterward. By then, he and his players had to think it couldn’t possibly get any worse.

Oh, but it could. And did when the clock read .4 seconds Saturday and Portland State pulled off one of the improbable, unfathomable plays of the season. A one-in-a-thousand play.

Against Northern Arizona of course. Is there a Shane Burcar voodoo doll somewhere with pins stuck in it?

“I thought we’ve been getting better defensively,” he said Saturday. “Hopefully this is just a setback.”

So the Lumberjacks are 7-20. They’ve won some close finishes but 11 of their defeats have come by a total of 34 points. They twice led Portland State with one second to go, and lost both games. They might be last in the Big Sky and No. 266 in the NCAA’s latest NET ratings, but they’re No. 1 on the list of teams who deserve a break.

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