Cats prepare for dogfight: NMU women, men get ready for visit from rival Tech
MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University basketball programs are hitting their stride at the perfect time of the season.
The NMU women have won their last four games, while the men ended a six-game skid with two wins last week over Davenport and Grand Valley State.
Now both squads face Michigan Tech on Saturday with the women (14-4, 9-1 GLIAC) getting a chance to extend their first-place lead over the Huskies in GLIAC North Division.
“It’s a big-time rival, so it’s always meant something a little extra to us over the past five years,” NMU guard Tess Weatherly said. “It’s always been a really big game, so it’s something we always look forward to.”
“We get their best and they get our best,” fellow Wildcats senior Darby Youngstrom added. “It’s always a good crowd both here and there. Something we kind of always look forward to every year is playing Tech and hopefully getting a win.”
The game with the rival Huskies also means a lot to the men’s teams.
While the NMU women are trying to maintain their spot atop the GLIAC, the Northern men are trying to climb the standings. The Wildcats (10-7, 5-5) are in fourth place in the North and a win could vault them into second place, while a loss would leave them tied with the Huskies in a tie for the No. 4 spot out of six teams.
“They’re an hour and 40 (minutes) up the road in Houghton and it’s just something about playing them in any sport,” NMU point guard Naba Echols said. “It means more to us to win this game in front of our home crowd and just have the bragging rights of beating them on our floor.”
The Wildcat women definitely have some bragging to do right now as they’re coming off an upset of now-No. 15 Grand Valley State. NMU head coach Troy Mattson felt that his team made progress with that win.
“We took a step forward in the Grand Valley game because when we get in what you call these bigger games, we’ve struggled to stay to the game plan or we have broken down in some areas, which has allowed good teams to beat us,” he said. “We were able to fend that off and fight them off the whole game against Grand Valley. So it is another step in the right direction.”
The Wildcats could take an even larger step forward against Tech, even as the Huskies (11-7, 7-3) may not quite be at the same level as the Lakers.
MTU has been hit hard by injuries and if Northern was looking for a time to take down their rival, this would be it. However, Mattson still sees the Huskies as a formidable opponent despite their health issues.
“They have gotten themselves organized and coach (Sam) Hoyt has done a really good job of that the last couple of weeks,” he said. “It’s kind of like what we did (last year).
“We went through a same situation and we got ourselves organized the last five or six games of the year. We made a run and got ourselves into the (GLIAC) tournament. I can see their team doing the same.
“They’re doing a really good job out there in both aspects, the defensive end and the offensive end. We’re going to have to be able to combat that.
“At the end of the day, somebody is going to have an extra win in the win column and somebody is going to have an extra loss in the loss column. Whether we play Lake Superior (State), Ferris (State) or Davenport or Grand Valley, it’s the same.
“The media makes it bigger than what it is. For us, it’s going to be a win or a loss, and the next day, I’m going to wake up and we’re going to prepare for the next team. It’s about that simple.”
The Northern men are also trying to keep things simple, because that’s what they had to do to get out of their skid.
“We feel pretty good,” Echols said. “Any time you get a win, especially two in a row in the GLIAC, is pretty impressive. We’re just trying not to get too high right now because we’ve seen how things can quickly turn for us.
“Coming off that losing streak we had, that taught us a valuable lesson. So we’re just staying the course and just taking it game by game.”
The men’s game will be a little different than other games Northern has played, not just because it’s against the Huskies, but because Tech (9-8, 4-6) is missing two key pieces of its offense in Kyle Monroe and Tommy Lucca.
As a result, MTU is last in the GLIAC in points per game (65.4), but in a way, NMU head coach Bill Sall sees the Huskies as an improved team and said his team needs to be locked in when the ball is tipped.
“Those are two really good players (Monroe and Lucca),” he said. “It’d be similar to us losing Naba and Isaiah (Johnson), but (coach) Kevin (Luke) has done an incredible job.
“They’ve got a team that because of that lack of offensive firepower, have done a great job of really bonding as a team. They play incredible team defense and they’re amazing on the glass. You look at these games and we see them play a lot because they’re a travel partner.
“They’re down early and they just scrap and battle. Those missing pieces, I’m not going to lie, it’s a different team, but in the same breath, they’re some ways a better team. It’s a team that’s more cohesive and a team that’s really is committed to each other.
“These games still come down to the team that can be more physical. The team that can own the paint, the team that is able to withstand the ferocity of play and kind of still play at a little bit higher level.
“I think home-and-away records and everything else go out the window. This comes down to which team has the right focus on that night.”
The women’s game tips off at 11 a.m. and the men will follow at 1 p.m.