Something to prove

Predicted for GLIAC basement, NMU men jump out to 2-0 GLIAC start with win

Northern Michigan’s Dolapo Olayinka comes in for a layup in a game against Saginaw Valley State Saturday morning, Dec. 2, 2017, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

By RYAN SPITZA

Journal Sports Writer

MARQUETTE — Junior guards Isaiah Johnson and Naba Echols combined to score 50 points to help the Northern Michigan University men’s basketball team pull off an 86-69 victory over Saginaw Valley State at the Berry Events Center on Saturday afternoon.

Johnson pumped in a career-high 29 points and added a game-high nine rebounds as the Wildcats improved to 5-3 and 2-0 in the GLIAC for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

“We’ve got something to prove this year,” he said. “Every game we try to go out there and make everybody know that we’re for real and not just some joke. We’re out here trying to win and we’re going to prove it this year.

“It’s a whole new team out here. The atmosphere in the locker room. We know we can play with anybody or win any game and it’s a lot of weight off of your shoulders. Losing every week gets depressing.”

Echols added 21 points and shared team assist honors with Sam Taylor with three apiece. Echols’ scoring included hitting 4 of 5 on 3-pointers.

“Last year I struggled a little bit shooting the three-ball,” he said. “This summer I made it an emphasis to work on.”

He echoed Johnson in saying that NMU’s play is about proving to those who follow the GLIAC wrong.

“We definitely have a mindset every game,” he said. “We were picked to finish last in the GLIAC in the coaches poll and by the media. Every game we come out and give it our all and change the mindsets of many people.”

Northern head coach Bill Sall said he is happy with the conference start.

“It’s a buy-in from the guys,” he said. “We’ve got a mix of players now with good depth and I think they’ve made the commitment to see us change things. When you go out there and watch them play, there’s a different vibe and there’s some good confidence in what they’re doing.”

Despite the strong game from the Wildcats, Sall said his team still needs to learn to play with a lead.

“The one thing I’m a tad frustrated with is that I don’t care if we’re up two (points) or we’re up 30, but we need to play the right way,” he said. “I thought in the last 10 minutes, we kind of just played. I would have liked to have seen us fundamentally do things better down the stretch.”

The Wildcats jumped out to an 11-2 lead less than six minutes in before a 14-4 burst by the Cardinals gave them a 16-15 lead.

Sall said the timeout after SVSU took the lead helped settle his team in for the rest of the game.

“It’s one thing for us trying to figuring things out as we go, but understanding what it means to play with a lead and then building on it,” he said. “We got to that point, had a good lead, took a couple of rushed shots, a couple of uncharacteristic plays and relaxed a little bit on defense.

“That’s what timeouts are for, to let them know ‘Hey, that’s not good enough,’ but the good thing is that they responded and closed out the half well.”

The Cardinals (2-5) went cold after they took that lead, which led to a 15-0 sprint by Northern to re-establish a 30-18 advantage five minutes before halftime.

Ahead 39-21 at the break, NMU got a triple from Johnson 10 seconds into the second half as Northern kept a lead of at least 15 points throughout the second half.

NMU begins a two-game road trip starting at Purdue Northwest in Hammond, Indiana, at 9 p.m. EST Thursday.

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.

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