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Northern Michigan University women’s basketball team points at return to NCAA tournament

Northern Michigan University’s Amber Huebner dribbles the ball up the court as Saginaw Valley State’s Mariah Cook pursues during their game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Feb. 7. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — Last season the Northern Michigan University women’s basketball accomplished something that most people didn’t see coming.

The Wildcats made a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 and got some revenge by beating Ashland in the first round after falling to the Eagles in the GLIAC finals.

That was last year, though. NMU’s 2019-20 season starts today with the GLIAC/Great Lakes Valley Conference Challenge, but head coach Troy Mattson said his veteran players will be taking last season’s postseason run with them when they tip off.

“I think it’s important that the players take something (from the tournament) because the last time we were in it was in 2014 and when you’ve got new players coming into your program and going through the system, they don’t understand what they’re really playing for,” he said Tuesday.

“We were kind of fighting that for about a year or so. I knew we had the talent to make it there, but the players didn’t really quite understand what we were trying to do.

Northern Michigan University's Jessica Schultz tries to drive around Saginaw Valley State's Kyndall Spires during the fourth quarter on Feb. 7 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

“Just to get that taste in our mouth and being successful in the tournament against Ashland last year, really has shown me with our girls, the leadership of our upperclassmen; how they are approaching every single day and getting themselves ready to play this weekend has been the biggest thing that I’ve noticed.”

Three veterans will start, including preseason All-GLIAC honorees Lexi Smith and Jessica Schultz. Smith made the All-GLIAC First Team last year and Schultz was an All-GLIAC Second Team and the All-Defensive Team. The third returnee is former Marquette Redettes guard Amber Huebner, who turned into a clutch player down the stretch last year.

“(Smith and Schultz are) both all-conference players and now they’re going to take another step in being the go-to people,” Mattson said. “Darby (Youngstrom) had the ball a lot for us last year, but now Jessica can really show her true talents.

“She’s an extremely talented center. Not just in the scoring category, but she feeds everybody and has a great understanding of the game. Lexi has obviously been a special talent for us here.

“The one that has really impressed me so far is Erin (Honkala). Erin lost some minutes last year because we had to move Darby to the 4 (power forward)…. Erin has really come back extremely focused and we understand her athleticism is incredible and she’s made herself a better basketball player just because of the way she approaches every day….

Northern Michigan University's Lexi Smith looks to drive the baseline as Saginaw Valley State's Hannah Settingsgaard defends in the second quarter of their Feb. 7 game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“Amber is going to start for us. She earned it last year. At the end of the season, when Lexi was out, Amber stepped in and just played great for us the last two or three games of the season and into the tournament, she played great.

“She’s a big part of everything we do, her toughness and athleticism. Now, the big thing that was keeping her off the court for a couple of years was her ability to shoot the basketball coming out of high school.

“That’s all I ever told her her freshmen and sophomore year — ‘Just keep shooting.’ She’d say, ‘Coach, all I ever do is shoot.’ I said, ‘It’s going to come for you.’ Now she’s a very good shooter.

“So all her other talents can step forward now and show that you can’t double off of her.”

Mattson said he’s still not sure who his starting five will be this weekend as he is still dealing with some past injuries. But he feels depth will be a great asset.

Northern Michigan University's Jessica Schultz has the ball stolen by Davenport's Haley Gibbons in the first quarter of a women's college basketball game against Davenport played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 17. Also defending on the play is the Panthers' Taylor Opolka. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“When we’re healthy, we’re 12 (players) deep,” he said. “We got a young lady from Spain (Elena Alaix), who transferred in from the University of Portland that I recruited a couple years ago. She chose to go Division I and now has come back to us. She’s a 6-foot-2 wing that can shoot. She’s super long and is super smart and she’s gonna be a really good player for us.

NMU plays William Jewell (Mo.) today and host school Lewis on Sunday in Romeoville, Illinois.

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

Northern Michigan University's Jessica Schultz gets her shot blocked by Saginaw Valley State's Aaliah Hill during the fourth quarter on Feb. 7 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)