Rivals clash tonight

MARQUETTE – The regular season is coming to a close today for both the Northern Michigan University women’s and men’s basketball teams and they both get to play it at home against their archrival to the west.

Michigan Tech University comes to the Berry Events Center and there’s a lot riding on the games for all four teams involved. On the women’s side, the Wildcats are trying to earn a home game in the first round of next week’s conference tournament and need a win to have a chance to accomplish that goal.

The Huskies, on the other hand, sit atop the North Division – in fact, the entire league – and are looking to enter the postseason on a high note.

“The game is big in regard to the regional rankings,” Wildcats head coach Troy Mattson said. “We have to beat a very good team to get the chance to play at home against most likely, Grand Valley State, another good team. It’s an important game.”

The first time NMU played Tech this season, in Houghton, the Wildcats lost after the Huskies used a late second-half run to win. The No. 9 Huskies are known for their talent in all areas with senior Jillian Ritchie and Danielle Blake leading the way. Ritchie is fourth in the GLIAC in field goal percentage at 52.5 percent while Blake is 10th in points per game with 13.

“They played great against us last time,” Mattson said. “They (have) speed on defense and they have great shot-making abilities. They constantly stress you out with the three-(point) ball and their perimeter defense is also good. It should be a good game.”

Heading into the 5:30 p.m. game, which will be televised by Fox-U.P., the Wildcats are on a five-game winning streak, having won their last four handily. Mattson says that success has been primarily due to two things – defense and ball control.

“We’ve been a very good defensive team the last few games,” he said. “We’ve also done a great job of taking care of the basketball. I think we’re averaging less than 10 turnovers a game, which is amazing. That’s been our (recipe) for success.”

Another part of the Wildcats’ success this season has been their senior class. Courtney Lemon and Abbey DeBruin have been effective in the paint, while Lauren Gruber is fourth in the GLIAC in 3-point percentage while averaging 13.5 points per game.

As good as they all have been, guard Alyssa Colla has been the engine on offense. Colla is second in the GLIAC in points per game with 17.9 and has climbed to fifth place in Wildcats’ record book in career points.

“Alyssa has been incredible since she got here,” Mattson said. “She’s not afraid of the moment and she wants the ball in tough situations. She’s a joy to coach and she’s a real student of the game.

“Our seniors have put us on the map, both in the Midwest and nationally. They set a high bar for us and it’ll be hard to see them go.”

Mattson hopes a win will give the Wildcats a boost into the postseason.

“The first step is the conference playoffs,” he said. “We have bigger aspirations than that, though. We’re one of the bubble teams to make the national tournament and we are looking forward to the opportunity to prove ourselves.”

Wildcat men improving

The NMU men hope to go out on a good note. The Wildcats have been much improved this season and a win over MTU could give Northern double-digit victories.

The Wildcats stand a good chance considering they already won in Houghton earlier in the season. NMU used a strong first half to take a big lead and held off a late rally.

“We came out focused that game,” NMU head coach Bill Sall said. “We wanted to start reviving the rivalry. There have been few NMU wins the last few years and there were several blowouts. I thought we did a great job of executing our game plan.”

But after a good start to the season, the Wildcats have stumbled down the stretch and have been hit hard by injuries, not to mention having to play the best teams in the conference lately.

“We’ve played three ranked teams, so the competition has been tough,” Sall said. “We’ve been thinned out lately. It hurts having to have guys play a lot more minutes than they are used to.

“There was a stretch of games that were so close and that came down to a possession or two. Those are the ones that hurt the most because you wonder what you could’ve done differently to get the win.”

Even though its record may not show it, NMU has had several players step up during the year. One of the biggest is senior Chavis Mattison, who rattled off six straight double-doubles.

“Chavis has done a great job,” Sall said. “He has improved steadily and has come on strong the last few games. It’s nice to see him end his career on a good note.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of young guys make tremendous strides, like Marcus Hall and Jordan Perez. Alex Sorenson and Kenny Williams have also shown potential. I feel like we’ve gotten out of the ditch and that we are above ground.

“Now we have to go from being competitive to being contenders. I think it’s realistic to have a goal of making it into the top four of our conference.”

Before they start looking to next season, the Wildcats have one last game to take care of. To get a win tonight, Sall says that things have to go well at both ends of the court.

“We have to take advantage of our scoring opportunities and control the paint,” he said. “We also have to contest their shots. If we’re going to win, we have to be strong on the defensive side of the ball.

“Everybody will have to step up for us to win. Hopefully, we can get our seniors out on a winning note, and beating your archrival is a great way to do so.”

Tipoff for the men’s game is set for 7:30 p.m.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal. net.