4-0 Wildcat, Michigan Tech men clash Sunday

Northern Michigan University’s Eddie Tornes performs a jumpshot as Saginaw Valley State’s Malik Garner, left, blocks Saturday morning, Dec. 2, 2017, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)


Journal Sports Writer

MARQUETTE — The rivalry between Northern Michigan University and Michigan Tech is as intense in men’s basketball as it is in any other team sport, but things are a little different this season.

That’s because both NMU and Tech have identical overall records — 7-3 — and identically perfect 4-0 records good for a tie atop the GLIAC North Division.

The Wildcats have also won their last four games and are off to their best start in years, so there’s some hype going into this game, to be played at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Berry Events Center. The women’s game follows at 3 p.m.

Northern head coach Bill Sall is well aware of the anticipation for this men’s game and said his team will have to play its best if it wants to top their rival to the west.

“Obviously, we have a huge game coming up and I think our standpoint this week with Michigan Tech is that it is a rivalry, but to be quite frank, a rivalry is all about winning and we haven’t won many of these games in the last 10 years,” he said. “In order to make it a rivalry, we actually have to do our part and make sure that we come out with the same type of focus that they’ve been able to here for the last several years.

“That’s the challenge for our team this year, knowing that we’re playing a team that’s incredibly well coached and has a lot of talented players who know how to win.

“So we have to do our best to prepare and make sure that our guys are aware of where we’re at and be ready to compete at the fullest.”

To defeat MTU, the first person the Wildcats will have to lock on is forward Kyle Monroe, who leads the GLIAC in scoring at 26.4 points per game. The tough thing for NMU is that even if it manages to slow down Monroe, the Huskies are a good enough team to win without him being dominant.

“Kyle is playing as well as any player that I’ve seen in my 25 years,” Sall said. “He’s a machine and that’s the thing for him. He can do it from every spot and it’s a really difficult matchup.

“He’s so consistent in the post and from the perimeter, and he just has an incredible knack to get to the free-throw line. It’s a challenge, and trust me, there will be a few sleepless nights here just trying to figure out what to do.

“The thing for them is that they still have a number of quality players. It’s not just Kyle. (Bryan) Heath is playing really well and (Dillon) Gordon is playing well. (Marquette Senior High School graduate A.J.) Grazulis has given us a ton of problems the last couple of years. Their freshmen have also started to play really well. Yes, it is Kyle, but it’s a rounded, good basketball team.”

When asked if beating the Huskies would be a signature win for his program, Sall said it’s too early to say that, but he did say that it would make it a little sweeter.

“If we’re in the hunt and it’s February, then you can start talking about signature wins,” he said. “But I’m also not going to sit here and tell you that this is just another game on the schedule. It’s not and I think we all know that. This is your rival and it doesn’t matter if you play them the first game of the year or the last game.

“The nice thing right now is that we’re both tied for first (place). I don’t know the last time that’s happened. In reality, no matter what, even if you’re in last place and they’re in first, it’s still your rival game.

“We’re taking that approach that this is a big game. It would be a great win like every win is, but even a little sweeter when it’s your rival.”

When reflecting on last week’s road victories over Purdue Northwest and Grand Valley State, Sall said that he was pleased with his team’s effort, especially during the overtime win over GVSU.

“I think when you can go on the road and not play particularly well on the offensive end, which happens a lot, and still come away with two wins, that’s huge,” he said. “In the Grand Valley game in particular, we were down 11 (points) and just weren’t playing well on the offensive side.

“To have the resolve to get back into that game, that doesn’t even happen last year. So that speaks a lot to our team and where we’re at right now.”

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