Back to the Big Dance: Northern Michigan University women’s basketball team makes NCAA Division II nationals for 1st time since 2014

Northern Michigan University’s Jessica Schultz, left, attempts to dribble past Ferris State defender Brayene Benner during a GLIAC Tournament quarterfinal game played March 5 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

Tonight: NMU vs. Ashland, NCAA Division II Midwest Regional, 9:30 p.m.; Radio: WUPT 100.3 FM (tentative)

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“I think we are a team that can pose some problems for some teams.” — Troy Mattson, NMU women’s basketball coach, on the Wildcats’ prospects in the NCAA Division II Tournament

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MARQUETTE — Every March, college basketball teams gather around television screens or laptop computers to find out if they’re one of the lucky ones to make it into the NCAA tournament.

The Northern Michigan University women’s basketball team found out that way on Sunday night, but while they were on a bus just after re-entering the Upper Peninsula. They were returning home after losing in the GLIAC Tournament championship game played in Allendale that afternoon.

Wildcats head coach Troy Mattson said the team stopped after getting across the Mackinac Bridge, but due to some technical difficulties, tensions were high on the bus.

“We always stop in St. Ignace at the Holiday gas station and catch a little snack before the last three-hour ride home,” he said. “It was 10 o’clock, so we decided to stay there and wait in the parking lot. The livestream (of the NCAA selections) was so bad on the bus that it was messed up and the girls were all in the back huddled around with whatever they had back there.

“(Head coach) Mike Williams from Grand Valley (State) actually texted me and said congrats. We couldn’t see the livestream and they obviously had it. So I kept my mouth shut and it took us about 20 minutes to get the livestream all figured out. They had to go back through it and replay it again and go through the whole scenario and then obviously the girls found out and that was pretty cool.

“I thought it was cool that (NMU athletic director) Forrest (Karr) was there on the bus. He flew out that morning after the (Saturday night home playoff) hockey game and drove back with us on the bus. I thought that was really cool that Forrest was there to see the girls’ reaction to that.”

Now the fifth seed in the Midwest Region, the Wildcats get a chance for revenge against fourth-seeded Ashland, who they lost to in the GLIAC title game along with their only meeting in the regular season.

Mattson said the tourney bid was due to hard work and fighting through adversity, as well as a strong performance in the GLIAC Tournament.

“It’s been a grind so we’re quite ecstatic about it,” he said. “It’s been a long, tough season and we went through a lot, but the girls kept hanging in there and we played really well last weekend.

“We beat the No. 7 team in the country (Grand Valley) without a first team all-conference player in Lexi (Smith) not being out there, and then turned around the next night and almost beat the No. 6 team (Ashland).

“My hat goes off to those girls. They really put in a lot of time and effort into the whole weekend and played great. I’m excited to move on to the next step and I’m glad that we got the opportunity to get into the national tournament, because I think we are a team that can pose some problems for some teams.”

They definitely posed a problem for teams last weekend as the Wildcats overcame an 11-0 deficit start on Saturday and used a dominant fourth quarter to upset the Lakers.

When asked what it took to make a comeback against a GVSU squad that held them to 37 points a few weeks ago, Mattson said he thought his squad was nervous to start the game Saturday and just needed to settle down and set up opportunities.

“It happened a week before when we were playing Grand Valley, they almost shut us out in the first quarter then,” he said. “It was 12-2 at the end of the first quarter.

“And I think just the moment of playing Grand Valley and understanding how big of a game that it was going to be for us both times, that if we could double up on them and get two wins against Grand Valley, that it might get us into the national tournament. I think there was a lot of nerves, especially on the offensive end.

“Everybody thinks it’s about shooting. A lot of it is about passing. I said we need to be better passers so that our shooters can get ready.

“Lo and behold, I thought Darby (Youngstrom) and Jessica (Schultz) were incredible skipping the ball out of the post and getting the ball to our shooters to get some freedom out there and get some shots up.”

The Eagles are up next and Mattson likes the matchup, because unlike the last two games the Wildcats have played Ashland, they’ll actually get a few days to prepare.

“I feel comfortable with it,” he said. “The one thing about us playing Ashland the past two times is that one was a Saturday game after a Thursday night game and we had a half-hour to prepare for them. This is a team that you need to prepare for because they’ve got three girls out there that could easily play for a lot of Division I schools. So we had a half hour when we went to Ashland and it was really tough on us.

“We had an opportunity in that game and then went from Saturday playing Grand Valley to turn around and play Sunday afternoon and basically, we got a half-hour in the gym again to prepare for them.

“We limited a lot of (mistakes), but I think now that we get two or three days to really sit down and crunch this thing out that we can slow them down a little bit more, which would be very advantageous to us.”

Northern tips off against the Eagles at 9:30 EDT tonight in Springfield, Mo., in the opening round of the eight-team Midwest Regional. If the Wildcats win, they will face the winner of the Drury-Kentucky Wesleyan game Saturday night. Undefeated Drury is the Midwest host and its No. 1 seed.

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