Northern Michigan University Wildcat basketball teams head out on challenging road trip

Northern Michigan University’s Naba Echols, right, searches to make a pass as Saginaw Valley State’s Fred John Jr. blocks on Saturday morning at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — It’s still early in the season, but looking at last weekend, it appears that Northern Michigan University’s basketball programs are heading in different directions.

The NMU men looked strong in their last two games, taking down Northwood with the 1-2 punch of Naba Echols and Isaiah Johnson, then dominating Saginaw Valley State Saturday to complete a weekend sweep. The Wildcats held the Cardinals to just 21 points in the first half and at one point led by 28 in the second half.

Northern head coach Bill Sall liked what he saw from his team, especially on the defensive side of the court, and thinks that his players can do even better than what they did over the weekend.

“I think we’re certainly doing a better job here of defending and rebounding,” he said. “I think that’s certainly stood apart in these first two games. By doing that, we’ve been able to get out and run.

“This is one of the quickest teams that I’ve had…. If we can get out and run and get to the basket, we’re in pretty good shape.

“At times, I would’ve liked to see us extend a lead, but in the same breath, there were a number of situations where we came out and extended the lead from where it was. So it was a good week.

“I think the good news is that I thought we played well and I think we can play much better.”

While Sall feels pretty good, NMU women’s coach Troy Mattson is feeling the opposite. His team split its first two GLIAC games, losing to Northwood in the opener Thursday before bouncing back to outlast Saginaw Valley State on Saturday.

“It’s been disappointing,” Mattson said. “It’s been a tough two years for us, that’s what I’m learning. We’re learning and the girls keep battling back.

“Unfortunately, on Thursday after the injury (to Darby Youngstrom), everything went south for us. Darby is playing like an All-American, it’s that simple. She’s our on-the-court leader and when the injury went down, we kind of lost ourselves a little bit on the defensive end, exactly in the area she would be defending.

“She’s probably our best defender. In that area, we struggled and they got hot from the three and we got upset. We did bounce back and played a good second half against Saginaw Valley.”

Both teams head out on the road, opening with Purdue Northwest in Hammond, Indiana, this evening before heading to Grand Valley State in Allendale on Saturday afternoon.

Sall says that both provide challenges to his team with Purdue simply being a new opponent and GVSU for its tough style of play.

“I didn’t even know where Purdue Northwest was until they came into the conference,” he said. “It’s a team that has struggled, but in the same breath, they just had Wayne State and it was a two-point game with two minutes to go.

“It’s all the unknowns. Coaches love routines. So new gym, new time frame, new schedule, those are the kinds of things that make you nervous as you go into a game like this.

“As we always know with Grand Valley, they play a bully style of basketball. They defend as well as anybody in the conference and you’re going to have to earn every point.”

Mattson, on the other hand, is just hoping his team is ready to play against P-N and can keep up with the talented Lakers downstate as the Wildcats try to stay in the GLIAC North race.

“I just watched (Purdue Northwest) on film for the last couple of days and I don’t know if they’re ready to compete at the highest level in this league right now,” he said. “So we need to go down, and if we’re organized and ready to play and do the things that we’re supposed to do, I think we can find some success in that game.

“Grand Valley, that’s a team that knows how to win. They have won in this league and they continue to win in this league.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is