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Northern Michigan University men’s basketball team opens season with split vs. Wisconsin-Parkside

Northern Michigan University center Ben Wolf tries to collect a loose ball during the second half against Wisconsin-Parkside on Sunday at the NMU practice gym in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

MARQUETTE — It was a rather up-and-down campaign a year ago for the Northern Michigan University men’s basketball team.

Now after a long layoff, the Wildcats were finally able to begin their season over the weekend.

Just like 2019-20, the opening two games were also up and down as NMU had to settle for a split with Wisconsin-Parkside. The ‘Cats won 76-75 in overtime on Saturday after a 3-pointer by Tre Harvey, but a second half run by the Rangers led to a 72-55 loss Sunday. Dolapo Olayinka led Northern with 17 points on Sunday.

NMU head coach Matt Majkrzak agreed that the Rangers’ run was the big factor on Sunday.

“Yeah, for sure,” he said during a Zoom interview. “I mean, a guy that we wanted to shoot the ball hit three straight 3s, but that’s basketball and we didn’t handle it well.

“I thought that was probably the part I was disappointed with was just the way we handled some adversity with the guy making shots, because that happens. But for some reason, it caused us to have our energy dip and what it needs to do is have our energy rise. For whatever reason, it didn’t.”

On Sunday, Northern built a nine-point lead twice in the first half. The first came on a bucket by Noah Parcher to put the ‘Cats up 19-10, then a few minutes later, two free throws by Ben Wolf made it 23-14 with 7:44 left in the first half.

However, the Rangers slowly chipped away at their deficit and took a 29-28 lead with about 1:40 left on a layup by Solomon Oraegbu. Parkside held a 33-30 advantage at the break.

In the second half, things started to fall apart for the Wildcats. Parkside padded their lead to double digits at 44-33 on a layup by Josiah Palmer. After a timeout with 7:59 left, Tray Croft dropped in a basket to give the Rangers a 20-point advantage at 61-41. In the final four minutes, the Wildcats switched to full-court pressure and forced several turnovers. Northern trimmed Parkside’s lead to 11 at 66-55 with the help of five points from Olayinka and a triple from Max Bjorklund, but that’s the closest the Wildcats could get.

“It was too little, too late,” Majkrzak said. “I wish I would’ve tried it with about 10 minutes to go because I actually think it might’ve worked. But that isn’t something we’ve ever practiced.

“So ‘Guys,’ I said. ‘Hey, we’re gonna press’ and then they’re like ‘Well, what are we in?’ And I’m like ‘Just run around.’ I mean, that was more or less what it was.

“And then the energy was great, but that’s one of those things when you’ve had eight practices and we’re not a press team. We necessarily weren’t equipped to do it, but I thought they did a great job in it just trying to make plays.

“Again, I keep saying energy, but it dipped and we didn’t get it back. So maybe the pressure caused us to have to, or otherwise, we were gonna get embarrassed. So I thought we probably should’ve kept the pressure up a little earlier, in hindsight.”

Saturday worked out much better for the Wildcats. The first half was back and forth, just like it was Sunday. NMU went up 25-16 on a dunk by Olayinka with 6:11 left, but Parkside came back to take the lead with 1:07 remaining on a trey from Palmer. However, Olayinka pulled off a three-point play with 27 seconds left to put the ‘Cats up 34-33 at the break.

The second half started to go the Rangers’ way. Parkside took a 59-49 lead on a 3-pointer from Colin O’Rourke with 8:30 left and got it to 11 points on another triple from O’Rourke to make it 65-54.

Then Northern caught fire. A trey by Olayinka pulled the Wildcats within one at 67-66 with 1:58 left and Bjorklund gave them the lead at 69-67 with a triple of his own. He led the ‘Cats with 23 points.

Parkside got a jumper from Ramar Evans to tie it with 37 seconds left and an Olayinka jumper rimmed out at the buzzer to force overtime. In the extra session, the teams traded baskets before Croft nailed a 3-pointer to give the Rangers a 75-73 lead with 12 seconds left. NMU wasn’t shaken, though, as Harvey knocked down a wide-open trey from the corner with seven seconds remaining to give the ‘Cats the win.

“It’s awesome,” Majkrzak said. “Those wins never get old. Those losses never have any less sting. Very fortunate to come out on the good side of that one.

“I just, everything we’d been through up to this point, to get down and come back, that’s the part to me that’s just impressive about those kids’ characters. Just because we’ve had so many challenges and then it wasn’t going our way, it just kind of felt not right, and then they just figured it out at the end. I’m just so proud of them.”

When asked if he thought Harvey’s shot was going in, Majkrzak said he wasn’t sure until it dropped through.

“No,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know why. Normally, I’m sure they’re going in, but that one I just didn’t think was going in. I didn’t like how we played defense at the end there. I probably screwed up a couple end-game things in hindsight.

“We had a couple things work well and that was one that I think we could’ve done a little bit better defensively, but at the end of the day, I’m glad it did go in.”

Northern heads to Saginaw Valley State this weekend. Friday’s tipoff is 5 p.m. and Saturday’s at 3 p.m.

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

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