MARQUETTE - Bill Sall's emphasis on defense is starting to pay dividends for the Northern Michigan University men's basketball team.
The Wildcats' first-year coach watched his team win not only their first GLIAC game, but two in three days at home last week while keeping the opposition under 60 points each game.
Northern dropped Tiffin 72-57 on Thursday and Ohio Dominican 75-52 on Saturday to improve to 3-7 overall and 2-4 in the league, good enough to get out of the North Division basement.
The Dragons were averaging nearly 81 points in all games and 63.5 ppg in GLIAC contests before NMU shut them down.
Ohio Dominican, averaging 76.8 ppg overall and 72.8 in GLIAC games, hadn't been held under 60 points all season until their trip to the Upper Peninsula, which also included a 71-57 loss on Thursday at Michigan Tech.
"That's the one thing we've preached about the most," Sall said about defense. "We have to be all-in. If we want to have any success at all, we have to be willing to defend and rebound.
"A big part of it is limiting our opponents' easy scoring chances. But what I'm probably most happy about the most is that the rebounding has become a community effort."
For example, he pointed to the box score against ODU that showed every player with at least 10 minutes playing time had a minimum of three rebounds.
"We don't have the kind of talent where one or two players can simply carry us," he said.
Sall was especially pleased with the Wildcats' turnaround after a poor start Saturday, when they fell behind 16-5 before going on an 18-0 run that gave them the lead for good.
"We took a timeout and talked about going to a zone (defense) with a zone press on top of it," Sall said. "The guys just started giving a more concerted effort and we were able to get some stops. Then we got some good pushes up the floor for some easier (scoring) chances. It just built upon itself.
"There is a progression - we're a better team than we were on Oct. 15 or Dec. 1. Hopefully we'll make another jump from now to the end of January."
This weekend is a new challenge with a long road trip to Ohio for games at Ashland (4-6, 1-5) at 7:30 p.m. today and Lake Erie College (5-7, 2-4) in Painesville at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
STAT LEADERS: NMU junior forward Justin Newell, named GLIAC North Division Player of the Week after last week's wins, leads the team in scoring at 14.1 ppg, followed by freshman guard Marcus Hall at 12.6. Four others - Chavis Mattison, Ethan Blackwell, Terry Nash and Dorrell Foster - average 7.3 to 9.0 ppg.
Rebounding is similarly balanced, with Mattison pulling in 5.1 per game and five others averaging at least three.
Among this week's opponents, Ashland's Will Evans averages 15.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, his rebounding third highest in the GLIAC. For Lake Erie, Riley Thomas comes in at 21.9 ppg, third in the league in that department.
TOUGH ROAD FOR NMU WOMEN: The Wildcat women's basketball team puts it undefeated GLIAC record and six-game winning streak on the line at 5:30 p.m. today at Ashland, the defending NCAA Division II national champions.
After a 37-1 campaign a year ago, the Eagles are a more modest 6-4 overall and 4-2 in the GLIAC this season. Still, Northern coach Troy Mattson isn't taking Ashland lightly.
"They lost a good core of their group from last year, but they're still going to be a challenge," he said. "They have a freshman center this year who's averaging 17 points a game."
That is 6-foot-1 Suzy Wollenhaupt, who's listed as a forward and averaging 17.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The Eagles' leading scorer is junior guard Taylor Woods at 18.3 ppg.
The Wildcats face Lake Erie (6-6, 1-5) at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Storm's Jackie Murray averages a team-leading 9.5 ppg.
Mattson gives credit to his team's ability to finish games for its 9-1 overall and 6-0 GLIAC marks.
"We're a confident bunch because we've been really, really good in the last five or six minutes of games," he said of his team that is tied atop the GLIAC North with Michigan Tech and Wayne State.
An example was a 61-59 win over Ohio Dominican on Saturday, when junior guard and leading scorer Alyssa Colla made two free throws with 35 seconds left to all but ice the result.
Colla leads Northern in scoring at 15.3 ppg. Against ODU, she scored 18 of her game-high 20 points in the second half, much of it due to sinking 10 of 11 free throws. Three of her teammates - Abbey DeBruin, Lauren Gruber and the injured Anna Liewen - score just a shade under 10 ppg.