Northern Michigan University men, women basketball teams feel good after clinching GLIAC tourney bids

Northern Michigan University’s Myles Howard follows through on a dunk after getting a pass from teammate Naba Echols, left, as Saginaw Valley State’s James Toohey can only watch the play at the Berry Events Center on Feb. 7. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — It’s been a long and tough road for the Northern Michigan University basketball teams, but things look pretty good for them now.

The NMU men and women have earned spots in their respective GLIAC tournaments as the women have also locked up a first-round home game. The men are on the cusp of home court, too.

The Northern men (15-9, 10-7 GLIAC) are coming off a road win at Lake Superior State that snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Lakers. NMU head coach Bill Sall was pleased with how his team bounced back after a disappointing loss to LSSU at home earlier in the season.

“We had a great defensive game against Lake State and to compare the two games, they were certainly the aggressors the first time,” he said. “I thought we held serve there and they had zero second-chance points in the second game at Lake State.

“To keep that team, which is a really aggressive rebounding team, to zero is pretty good. Isaiah (Johnson) and Naba (Echols) are really starting to carry the load on the offensive end and you can’t say enough about Myles (Howard).

“(Howard has) been amazing here all year, but the performances that he’s put together through January into February has really made us into what we are right now.

“The Lake State game was a huge one for us. That wasn’t just a monkey off our back, that was a gorilla. To go over and win there in a really tough environment and in a really tough game, that bodes well for us getting confidence down the stretch here.”

Speaking of confidence, the Northern women (19-6, 14-3) should have a lot of it. The Wildcats got two wins last week, one a double-overtime victory at Ferris State that gave head coach Troy Mattson his 200th victory.

“It was a great comeback by us and I’ll remember it for this, it was a double-overtime win and I got to share it with the people that were in that room with us,” Mattson said.

When asked what it took to get that hard-fought win, Mattson said it was a handful of players figuring out what to do correctly.

“It took six people that wanted to do things right,” he said. “We like to try to play 10 or 11 (players) as much as we can, and we had some people not doing what our game plan was, and got us in trouble out there on the court.

“I said, ‘If you’re not going to do things right, I’ve got to stick with the people that are going to do things right’ and those six people that stepped out on the court in the second half did an incredible job of fighting back into that game and securing a double-overtime win. It was a big win for us.”

When it comes to the Wildcat women’s next opponent, Grand Valley State, they already have earned a big win against them, handing the Lakers their only conference defeat.

Beating GVSU (23-2, 16-1) again won’t be easy as the Lakers have two of the top three leading scorers in the GLIAC — Cassidy Boensch and Jenn DeBoer — and are strong on both ends of the court.

“It’s going to be on their home court, but the last two or three years, I think we’ve gone down to the last play in probably six of the seven games,” Mattson said. “We played probably our best overall game of the year against them up here. So you can’t expect that to happen down there, but I do like our matchup.

“How are we going to finish plays coming down the stretch because both teams are probably the two best defensive teams in the conference.”

Mattson said his squad matches up well with GVSU, but that his worry is scoring points as the Wildcats have struggled on that end for much of the season.

“It’s always been a concern because that’s our weakness, in where we score with our guards,” he said. “That’s our biggest concern. On Saturday against Lake Superior (State), Sydney (Dillinger) has a very good game and Liz (Lutz) comes out with 12 points. If those two people can score, that really helps us through the whole thing.

“I think Darby (Youngstrom) is a senior that has really changed the game for us. She’s been playing great for about a month now. Ever since Christmas break, she has upped her game and has played great for us.

“Lexi (Smith), through all the injuries she’s dealing with, continues to get us points. So if we can get our guard play to score the basketball, we’re a tough team to beat then.”

Speaking of tough, the NMU men face that in GVSU and No. 14/16 Davenport, even though the Wildcats beat each in January at Marquette.

“Grand Valley is an incredibly talented team,” Sall said. “At home, they’re very tough and they’re in the fight for their lives to get a playoff spot.

“Davenport is the No. 1 team in the conference and they’re ranked in the country for a reason. They’re really good.

“I think we’re starting to gel at the right time. If you compare us to January, Troy (Summers) has really gotten us going on the inside, so now we have an interior presence. Isaiah and Naba are really starting to build some confidence and get back to playing the way they can play.

“When you get the mix of your role players, a great example is Marcus (Matelski), who has always been a shooter and he had eight rebounds in a game. I didn’t think he could have eight rebounds in a year.”

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