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Northern Michigan University Wildcats basketball teams to battle Cardinals from Saginaw Valley State: NMU women, men look to gain ground early in GLIAC campaigns

Northern Michigan University guard Makaylee Kuhn, right, directs traffic with Ashland’s Hallie Heidemann defending at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 2, 2020. (Journal file photo by Ryan Spitza)

“Makaylee Kuhn is going to show people what she is really made of and had just an incredible weekend.” — Troy Ma

ttson, NMU women’s basketball head coach, on Kuhn’s 56-point weekend at Wisconsin-Parkside

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MARQUETTE — Both Northern Michigan University basketball teams finally tipped off their seasons last weekend as both also handled some adversity.

The NMU women did well both nights, picking up two tight victories over Wisconsin-Parkside.

The men, on the other hand, rallied to earn a comeback win in overtime Saturday, but couldn’t overcome a second-half run by the Rangers and were dealt defeat the following day.

Northern Michigan University's Makaylee Kuhn, left, brings the ball up the floor with Michigan Tech junior Cassidy Trotter ready to defend during their GLIAC game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Feb. 27. (Journal file photo by Ryan Spitza)

Heading into last weekend’s series, Northern women’s coach Troy Mattson said that the Rangers were going to be a tough matchup for his team, but in Monday’s Zoom interview, he felt his team lived up to the task.

“Even more so,” he said. “We had no idea going in, we weren’t physically fit to play. We didn’t know even (if we could handle) one game, let alone two.

“We got in there in Saturday’s game and the girls were absolutely unbelievable. We used an 11-person rotation, kept everybody fresh as we could. We played extremely well for the number of people that we used that had never played a college basketball game before.

“… We had four freshmen that were very, very good and they stepped up all weekend and they played great for their first competitions.

“And then the emergence of Sam Potter, playing an unbelievable weekend. And Makaylee Kuhn is going to show people what she is really made of and had just an incredible weekend herself.”

Northern Michigan University forward Sam Schultz, right, looks for a teammate to pass to as Wisconsin-Parkside's Colin O'Rourke defends during the first half on Sunday at the PEIF gym in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

These women’s teams battled to the end Saturday before Kuhn sank four free throws in the final seconds as NMU won 77-74. Kuhn then topped that clutch night by scoring 38 points, while Potter was the one who made the big free throws in the closing seconds to finish the sweep with a 77-76 victory.

Mattson said he called his team the “Runnin’ Wildcats” after totaling each game more than 70 points, which was a struggle last season.

Now, those “Runnin’ Wildcats” will host Saginaw Valley State (0-2), a team that Mattson says they match up much better with. These games will each be at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The Cardinals lost 66-51 and 50-49 at home to Grand Valley State last weekend as all six league series were sweeps. GVSU was the second overall team in the GLIAC in 2019-20.

“We’re dealing with two different styles of play than what we just did,” Mattson said about facing SVSU. “Parkside’s a really bad matchup for us because they play a motion, spread out, a lot of cutting offense. And we’d rather defend in a kind of conventional set offenses where they use ball screens, and I run a lot of set plays. I think we’re really good at that part.

“And Saginaw is going to run ball screens every time down the court. And I’d rather guard ball screens than guard motion offenses. So I’m hoping that this fits into us a little bit better and that we could do a good job of, like I said, I hope we could do a good job of working on that part of our defense.

“We didn’t work on it much last week because we knew Parkside didn’t set any ball screens. So the majority of this week will be how to stop some great players coming off of ball screens.”

For the Northern men, they will also face the Cardinals, but it will be on the road at 5 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Saturday at University Center near Saginaw and Bay City.

Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, they’re heading downstate on a low note after struggling to keep up with Parkside in the second half Sunday. NMU head coach Matt Majkrzak said he still thought the run the Rangers made after intermission turned the tide that day and didn’t like how his squad handled trailing Parkside like it had done in Saturday’s win.

“I thought, I don’t think either game we played well,” Majkrzak said. “The difference was Saturday we kept going, and Sunday we didn’t. It honestly kind of comes down to as simple as that.

“Part of that is making shots, but at the same time, I just didn’t like our toughness. Troy (Mattson) mentioned, listening in on him, that at halftime, he challenged them that they weren’t tough enough to win the second game of a back to back.

“That was very similar to our halftime (Sunday) and we didn’t respond in that way. I thought we weren’t as tough as Parkside was the second half of the game. To me, that’s what has to change moving forward.”

The Wildcats switched up their defense, going with a full-court press to try to rattle the Rangers and it worked as they forced some turnovers. However, it was just too little, too late. Majkrzak said after the game that he wished he’d changed earlier and that they’d be focusing on their defense this week.

“We’ve practiced it a little bit, but we didn’t practice it to the point of having any names for it or patterns to it,” he said. “It was kind of ‘run around.’ I kind of like the run around. We might stick with that in the full court.

“Our half-court defense needs to get much, much better. I’ll take the blame for that completely with introducing the zone with the limited time we’ve had. I was hoping the zone could buy us a win or two wins and maybe in a way it did. But we’ve got to get back to who we are and defending tougher and matching up and making everything difficult, and that starts in the half court. It starts with transition defense.

“But I also think adding some pressure might be something this year’s team can do with the depth that we have, but we’ve got to protect the rim and we didn’t do that this weekend and we’ll get back to doing that.”

While the Cards provide a more complementary matchup for the women, SVSU will be a tough draw for the men and Majkrzak is well aware that they’ll need to be good on both sides of the ball to take down SVSU.

The Cardinal men also were swept by Grand Valley last weekend in Allendale, 76-59 and 72-67. GVSU’s men, like its women, were the No. 2 team in the GLIAC last season.

“Saginaw is very, very talented, probably you could argue the most talented team in the league,” Majkrzak said. “They have four guards and they actually bring the (GLIAC) Freshman of the Year from two years ago off the bench because their other three guys are just so, so talented. They struggled to start the year, they went 0-2 against Grand Valley (State), who’s also one of the best teams.

“But I think for us, it’s going to be just guarding the ball better, getting back to the way we were last year where we were holding teams under 60 points and making everything tough and making every basket be contested and hard.

“And I think it’s a great challenge that Saginaw is probably the hardest team to guard 1-on-1 in the league. So for us, what we need to get better at is also what they’re best at.

“So in a lot of ways, you could say maybe it’s a bad thing, but I’m looking forward to it. I want us to kind of find our identity again and I think this team, if we don’t, will be able to put up a lot of points on us. So we’ve go to get back to defending.”

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

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