NAZ Suns fall to expansion-Clippers 126-118 in opener

Booker, Gray score 28 points apiece, but defensive woes haunt Suns

Northern Arizona guards Askia Booker (31) and Josh Gray (5) talk on the court while the Suns hosted the Agua Caliente Clippers on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in Prescott Valley. Booker and Gray each scored 28 points in a 126-118 loss to the Clippers. (Matt Hinshaw/NAZ Suns)

Northern Arizona guards Askia Booker (31) and Josh Gray (5) talk on the court while the Suns hosted the Agua Caliente Clippers on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in Prescott Valley. Booker and Gray each scored 28 points in a 126-118 loss to the Clippers. (Matt Hinshaw/NAZ Suns)

Askia Booker and Josh Gray each scored 28 points, hitting nine of the club’s 17 3-pointers, Shaquille Harrison chipped in with 26 but the Northern Arizona Suns surrendered 54 points in the paint in a 126-118 loss to Agua Caliente to open the season Saturday night.

Despite forcing 24 turnovers and holding the Clippers to just 39 percent shooting (11 of 28) from beyond the arc, Gray said in the locker room after the game the Suns’ defense could be better.

“I think a lot of it is we gave up a lot of points on defense. We weren’t the defensive team that we were in training camp,” said Gray, who was 10 of 22 from the field and led the Suns with seven assists.

“We came out with a lot of energy, we played for each other,” Gray said about the positives. “We weren’t selfish, made the extra pass, and like I said, our defense wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be.”

Part of the club’s defensive struggles likely come from the head coaching situation with Northern Arizona (0-1), which finally inked Cody Toppert to a contract hours before tipoff Saturday.

“I’m proud of the effort considering we’re just now getting organized,” a clean-cut Toppert said in his first public appearance since the news broke Thursday the Suns had hired him away from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

“Essentially, we put an entirely new system in in about two days. I anticipate a great jump with a few practices next week,” Toppert said.

Booker credited Suns’ shooters with taking several “great open shots,” but they just couldn’t finish it off.

“I think we have enough great shooters … [and] on a consistent basis are going to make a lot of those shots,” said Booker, who was 8 for 20 from the field, including five 3-pointers and posted a 7 for 9 mark from the free-throw line.

Defensively, however, Booker said the Suns need to communicate better.

“We have to talk and communicate and learn how to play with each other. We’ve only been together as a team for two days,” Booker said about having only two practices under Toppert.

Northern Arizona committed 31 fouls, leading to a 29 for 34 mark from the charity stripe for Agua Caliente (1-1), which was just 24 hours removed from a 33-point loss to the Santa Cruz Warriors.

BENNETT

Former Cleveland Cavaliers No. 1-overall NBA draft pick Anthony Bennett continues to rehabilitate his ailing back, but did start and managed to play 22 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing seven rebounds.

Toppert said he’s “pleasantly surprised” considering Bennett played very little during the first week of training camp.

“We’re really watching his minutes,” Toppert said. “We didn’t want to throw him in there because of the tightness in his back. It’s going to be very important he stays with his rehab, his treatment, so that he’s ready to go.”

EXPANSION CLUB

For Auga Caliente, one of four expansion clubs in the NBA Gatorade League this season, Brice Johnson scored 25 points on 11 of 15 shooting from the field and grabbed 11 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.

UP NEXT

Northern Arizona continues its three-game home stand to begin the season by welcoming the Iowa Wolves on Thursday, Nov. 9. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

Brian M. Bergner Jr. is sports editor for The Daily Courier, the Prescott Valley Tribune and the Chino Valley Review. Follow him on Twitter at @SportsWriter52 or on Facebook at @SportsAboveTheFold. Email bbergner@prescottaz.com or call (928) 445-3333, ext. 1106.