A season to remember

Late rush gets NMU women to 2nd round of NCAA Tourney

Northern Michigan University's Darby Youngstrom, front, tries to draw a foul against Michigan Tech's Abbie Botz during the fourth quarter at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

MARQUETTE — When fans looked at the Northern Michigan University women’s basketball roster at the start of the year, a trip to the NCAA Division II national tournament may have not been on the radar.

However, the Wildcats managed to pull off that feat and more with a couple big late-season victories.

They shut down one quality program at the GLIAC Tournament in Grand Valley State to help lock down the bid, then upset another one in Ashland during the first round of the tournament regional round held in Missouri.

The Wildcats led the GLIAC in scoring defense by holding opponents to just 52.1 points per game, also finishing third in the nation in that category.

They held now-No. 8 GVSU to just 38 points in the conference tournament and kept now-No. 11 Ashland, the GLIAC’s best offense (87.2 ppg) to just 57 at the NCAA Tournament.

Those may have been two of the most memorable wins in the history of the program.

“Obviously, you’ve got to think it’s quite successful coming down the stretch,” NMU head coach Troy Mattson said recently. “We battled a lot of things again for the third year in a row here. It was a real struggle, but when we had to toughen up, we did. We had to come back in some games throughout the season that I’d think we’d potentially go in and win outright.

“We struggled in a lot of them, but we’d toughen up defensively and make plays, and at times, looked really well.

“We didn’t know if we’d get into the national tournament. We probably were on the out(side) before we played the Grand Valley game down there (in Allendale), and to beat the No. 7 team on their home court without Lexi (Smith) is a tribute to our girls toughing up … (S)coring zero points in the first quarter was a real tribute to how far we had come mentally, probably moreso than anything.

“Then to turn around in the national tournament and beat the No. 4 team says a lot again for how the girls played down the stretch of the season. When you beat the No. 7 and No. 4 teams in the country in a one-week span, you’ve done something and it’s something we’ll always be able to remember.”

The senior class played a big role in the Wildcats’ success, with Darby Youngstrom making the All-GLIAC First Team along with sophomore Lexi Smith and Sydney Dillinger earning a spot on the All-Defensive Team with junior Jessica Schultz.

Mattson praised his seniors for fighting through injuries and getting the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.

“Obviously, they’ve meant a lot,” he said. “They’ve been through a lot. Chloe (Tompkins) not getting a chance to play for 2 1/2 years and she’s probably a First Team all-conference player. She started and she was a major player as a freshman.

“The illnesses that Taylor (Hodell) has been suffering the past two years have been a real struggle on her and her family. For her to play well against Ashland on that last night was really important to her and her family and also to our team.

“Darby coming off an ACL the previous year and really putting it together the last two months after Christmas, she was outstanding and deserving of being a First Team all-conference player.

“Sydney was a walk-on here at Northern and (after) being thrown into a role that she didn’t want any part of in being our point guard, just blossomed each year after Chloe went down to become a First Team all-defensive player and a major player in our program.

“Tess (Weatherly) struggles with a lot of stuff outside of basketball and I can’t mention them.

“For that group of girls to get to a national tournament, people never know how gratifying it really is for them just to have that opportunity. Because all five of them have had major struggles the past three or four years and I’m really happy for them.”

Mattson was also impressed with the play of former Marquette Redettes guard Amber Huebner, who earned her spot in the startling lineup in the last few games of the season. She scored 17 points off the bench against Michigan Tech in the regular-season finale and became the point guard the Wildcats needed down the stretch.

“We were looking for somebody to help us and there’s one thing that I kind of always go back to and that’s when the going gets tough, play your tough people and Amber is tough,” Mattson said. “She stopped being nervous and she relished the opportunity. She’s a relentless worker in the gym on her shot and if there was something that was probably keeping her (from) being out on the court, it was that. She realized how important it was for her to shoot when she was open.

“So it was a real benefit to our team. I told her in our last game, I pulled her aside when I took her out and let our four seniors finish out there. I said one of the biggest reasons we’re here is because of you and how you stepped up the past three weeks. We look forward to her being a major player for us coming in the next couple of years.”

The Wildcats lose good leadership with seniors like Youngstrom and Dillinger departing, but Mattson likes what he has coming back with Smith, Schultz and Huebner, among others.

“I’ve got a great core coming back,” he said. “Two starters coming back, probably three. Jessica was a major player in our league, Second Team all-conference. Lexi is a First Team all-conference player and she’s only a sophomore. Liz (Lutz) has proven that she’s not afraid to make big shots in her career and was put in a position where she’s not a point guard and had to play point guard for us, probably the toughest position on the court.

“Those three and Erin (Honkala) has had major games for us. We’ve got to clean a little bit up in her game and Emily (Mueller) is going to be a good basketball player for us. I had to move her and put her in some positions that she was probably getting too many minutes as a freshman, but she’s going to be a really good player for us.

“So the core group, we’re excited about it. Amber is a big part of that.

“Then we have an incredible recruiting class. I’m going to have four freshmen out there that could play for us right away. Two of them are already here. They came in January and they were supposed to play for us this past year, but because of injuries, they were not able to.

“So we got them here in January, so they could experience what it was going to be like and they also got the opportunity to see a national tournament and how hard it is to get there and what it really means to be there.

“So that’s going to be a big benefit to us. I’m excited about our team next year.”

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