MARQUETTE - The Northern Michigan University women's basketball team had a history this season of making the final minutes of victories interesting.
Saturday, however, the Wildcats found the killer instinct necessary to clinch third place in the GLIAC North Division and a spot in the league's postseason tournament.
"We needed to get the win," NMU senior Hillary Bowling said. "We actually came together for a full 40 minutes and that's been our goal all year.
Northern Michigan University's Hillary Bowling (13) looks around Saginaw Valley State University's Aysha Boston (10) for a teammate to pass to during the second half of GLIAC play Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
"Today, we finally did that and we won by more than two points, so that was good."
Northern turned a five-point lead at intermission into a 20-plus-point margin midway through the second half en route to a 76-61 victory over Saginaw Valley State at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Senior Day.
"That was a big step for us because we're so young," NMU head coach Troy Mattson said. "We have so many freshmen who are integral parts of what we try to do out there.
"It feels good to be back in (the playoffs)."
The win returns the Wildcats (13-13 overall, 9-10 in the GLIAC) to the GLIAC playoffs after a one-year absence. Northern enters as the No. 8 seed and will play at No. 1 Ashland (Ohio) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the the opening round.
The winner of Wednesday's game will head to the GLIAC Final Four, which will be hosted by the top remaining seed on Friday and Saturday.
"I'm just excited this team has a chance to move on," Mattson said. "There are some people that really deserve it such as Chelsea (Lyons) and Hillary."
Northern pulled away from SVSU via four 3-pointers in a span of three minutes, including three from freshman Lauren Gruber in a span of 2 1/2 minutes.
Gruber, who hit a pair of crucial 3s on Thursday in Northern's win over Northwood, finished with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc.
Her ability to drive in the dagger is something Mattson has been waiting all year for from Gruber to make its way from the practice floor to the game-day hardwood.
"Lauren Gruber was outstanding again for us, making big shots," Mattson said. "That's good to see.
"If you know Lauren, that girl eats meat, man. She's not going to back down from any situation and she's kind of like our toughness in that group.
"We need a couple more people to get on track with the way she's playing."
Gruber was one of four Wildcats to reach double figures with Bowling leading the team with 21 points.
Senior Lyons posted 18 points and freshman Courtney Lemon finished with 11.
Freshman point guard Alyssa Colla finished with five points and a team-high eight assists.
"Today, we hit shot-after-shot and that's what clinched it for us," Bowling said. "It takes pressure off of me because hey, if they can hit shots, then I can hit shots and we're all hitting shots.
"It's really nice when everyone is hitting."
The balanced effort of four players accounting for 66-percent of the Wildcats points was in stark contrast to Thursday's win, in which Lyons and Gruber accounted for 75 percent of the Wildcats' scoring with their career highs of 34 and 19 points, respectively.
"We've been playing very well," Mattson said. "We've been playing well on the road, other than Ashland, who is a really good basketball team.
"We continue to take care of the ball. We continue to take good shots. As long we're making the shots we can get, or making a good percentage, we're a pretty good team."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.