Show their toughness: Northern Michigan University men, women basketball teams preparing for Grand Valley after strong weekend

Northern Michigan University’s Dolapo Olayinka, right, tries to get around Lake Superior State’s C.J. Robinson during the first half on Jan. 31 at NMU’s PEIF gym in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

“We’re going to have to not only play well, but we’re also going to have to have

that toughness and that grittiness both.” — Matt Majkrzak, NMU men’s basketball head coach,

on this weekend’s games at Grand Valley State


MARQUETTE — Heading into last weekend’s series against Northwood, both of the Northern Michigan University basketball programs needed to show their toughness if they wanted to gut out two wins.

Both did that for the most part with the men sweeping the Timberwolves at home and the women splitting on the road downstate.

For NMU men’s head coach Matt Majkrzak, it was an almost perfect weekend.

“I think if you have two double-digit wins, I think you have to be happy about it,” he said in Monday’s Zoom interview. “There’s a lot of things we’ve got to clean up, a lot of things we’ve got to get better at. But in terms of, kind of the big-picture stuff, I think you have to be really happy when you get wins.”

After the game Saturday, Majkrzak said his message was to attack the Timberwolves at both ends of the court. He said that Sunday’s game was a different story and was somewhat of a go-with-the-flow strategy.

“The game Saturday, I thought, was a really well played basketball game,” he said. “I thought we played as well as we’ve played all year, especially in the second half. And then Sunday’s game was more one of those kind of gritty, tough, hard-nosed, kind of ‘mucky’ games.

“We were in a lot of those last year. I don’t mind being in those. It’s usually a sign that you’re playing tough and you’re playing good defense.

“But it probably was a little less so attacking and a little bit more about get the ball to our two best players in the right spots and let those guys kind of go to work.”

Northern women’s head coach Troy Mattson was just as pleased with his team’s performance as it fought back Saturday afternoon to get the victory in their weekend’s second game.

“It was 80 minutes of hell out there,” Mattson said in his Zoom interview. “Neither team led by more than seven points in two straight games. It was back and forth both nights.

“I didn’t know how we would respond on Saturday after losing. I mean with two minutes to go, we were tied 60-all on Friday and we had the ball and we had two great shots and they didn’t go in. And then they went down and had a freshman, who was 1 for 4 from the 3-point line all season, make a 3 and kind of gave them the momentum to win that game.

“I didn’t know how we would respond and I couldn’t have been more proud of the way we played on Saturday. It was again 40 minutes of just tough basketball. Every possession mattered.

“We were down two of our best players with Emily Mueller not being there on the trip and Elena Alaix had 20 points on Friday night.

“We didn’t know if (Alaix) could even play. The trainers told me they didn’t know how many times she could get up and down the court on Friday and she ends up scoring 20. And then on Saturday, she just couldn’t play. She ran up the court twice and I had to pull her and she didn’t play anymore, so we started to rely on freshmen.

“And two of them just stepped up big time. Vivianne Jende just had a great game for us. And she didn’t play very good on Friday, I actually had to sit her down, she only played about six or seven minutes. She scores 16 points for us (Saturday) and has a great, great game. What a great bounce-back game.

“And Kayla Tierney played a great defensive game and made two huge 3s. When you’re really searching as a coach (is) when you start running plays for freshmen. That’s when you’re really searching….

“It was a great bounce-back game. Like I said, when you’re dealing with a lot of young people, you don’t know how they’re going to respond to tough situations, and they were calm, they were poised. They were very focused, we made our adjustments from game to game and put on a pretty good performance on Saturday. So I was really happy with our performance, all weekend to be truthful.”

Now the two teams flip their destinations. This week, the women (7-4) will host Grand Valley State (10-1), while the men (6-5) head downstate to Allendale to face the 5-5 Laker men. Each team only gets a few days’ break before playing again Tuesday against Michigan Tech.

Mattson said the Grand Valley women will be a tough task as always, even though the Lakers lost a good group of players to graduation last spring.

“They’re at 10-1 right now, leading the South Division and first place in the (GLIAC),” he said. “He (head coach Mike Williams) has a whole new cast of people. I haven’t really sat down, I’ve watched them a little bit on film, but I haven’t really sat down and just dissected them.

“They had graduated seven seniors last year, five starters and the first two girls off the bench. So they’ve got a whole new group of people…. Grand Valley is going to be successful in basketball and they have a lot of new people. They’re not as dominant as they have been, but they’re winning basketball games and that’s because of good coaching and a really good basketball program. So I will expect them to be a very good defensive team.

“I would think that we’re playing fairly well right now. If I can get somebody back, if I can get one of my girls back, it’ll help us a lot. But I expect this to be a great weekend of basketball again, too, and probably another 80 minutes of good, tough (NCAA) Division II women’s basketball programs trying to compete to stay in the top of their league.”

On the men’s side, despite its record, GVSU may be an even tougher foe for the NMU men as it has arguably one of the most skilled lineups in the GLIAC.

“I think they’re one of the most talented, if not the most talented team in the league,” Majkrzak said. “They have the (GLIAC) Preseason Player of the Year, an All-American in Jake Van Tubbergen. Last year, both times we played them, I can’t even remember what it was, but he had 30-plus (points) and close to 40, it felt like both times.

“So everything, kind of, starts with him and then a bunch of talented kids around him. One of their kids started at Colorado before he transferred to Grand Valley, another one at Loyola (Chicago). So the talent, it just jumps off the screen when you watch their film. And then on top of that, they guard better than almost anyone in the league. They’re very tough, they’re very physical.

“So it’s going to take a really, really good effort out of our team probably in both ways. We’re going to have to not only play well, but we’re also going to have to have that toughness and that grittiness both.”

The men play at 1 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday downstate, while the women play at 1 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday at Northern’s PEIF gym. All games will be broadcast on radio station WUPT 100.3 FM The Point.

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


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