MARQUETTE - Standing at street level and looking up, it's a long way to the top of the skyscraper.
But the trip can't begin without ascending from that bottom floor, much like the Northern Michigan University men's basketball team is trying to do in these first few days of the regular season.
The Wildcats improved to 2-1 after defeating Grace Bible College of Grand Rapids 90-72 on Monday evening at the Berry Events Center.
Northern Michigan University junior Justin Newell (5) finds the inside lane as Grace Bible College junior Brad Rosenzweig attempts to block during the second half Monday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
All three opponents during the past four days are smaller schools like Monday's opponent, the Tigers, who are Division II members of the NCCAA - the National Christian College Athletic Association.
But this is an NMU team that in some ways is playing with 12 freshmen. The Wildcats feature a new coaching staff, nine players new to the program and three returnees that saw court time only sparingly last season.
"Everybody is new to each other, and I've only known them for three months, but it's amazing how close we've already gotten," said sophomore point guard Terry Nash, a returnee who only saw action in four games last year because of injuries.
Nash finished Monday's game with 16 points and three assists. Despite being short in stature compared to his teammates at 6-feet tall, he joined junior teammate Justin Newell in grabbing a game-high six rebounds while finding time to block a shot, too.
"It really helps to have him back," Northern head coach Bill Sall said. "He knows the league, but he's also good in all facets of the game. He's a real spark plug for us in many ways.
"The big thing is the way he plays - he plays hard."
Newell scored a game-high 24 points while freshman teammate Marcus Hall added 21 with all but three of those points coming from six 3-pointers.
"This was the best we've played so far, but we still have to get way better defensively," Sall said. "We don't really know how to guard, but we're getting better."
He has some other areas to work on, too.
"We have to get better at getting to loose balls. Those '50-50' balls, I think we lost every one of them tonight," Sall said.
"And if we're going to be any good in our conference, we're going to have to be a better rebounding team. We're just average now."
Though Northern was never threatened on Monday, the Wildcats also didn't put the Tigers away until the final 10 minutes.
The Wildcats jumped out to leads of 13-2 and 26-10 in the game's first 10 1/2 minutes, but saw Grace Bible whittle the margin to a half-dozen points several times late in the first half.
The Tigers used a combination of several 3s and numerous layups to catch up while Northern looked like it became complacent on offense, settling for a lot of 3-point attempts that wouldn't fall.
Leading 36-28 at halftime, the Wildcats were still only ahead 56-46 in the middle of the second half before going on a 10-0 tear to put the game away.
The spurt included 3s by Newell and Hall and a layup and two free throws by Nash in a span of 1:22.
Forward Brad Rosenzweig paced Grace Bible with 15 points.
Northern steps up to NCAA Division II competition from here on out, playing its final two nonconference games in the next week - Southwest Minnesota State at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Lewis University at 3 p.m. Sunday, both at home.