It’s great to be back home: Wildcat men, women return for 2 GLIAC games

NMU senior guard Naba Echols dribbles pas defenders as fellow junior guard Marcus Matelski looks on in a game versus Minnesota-Duluth at the Berry Events Center on Tuesday night. (Journal Photo by Ryan Spitza)

MARQUETTE — After a long road trip, it’s nice to finally get back home and the Northern Michigan University basketball teams will finally get to play on their own court again.

The Wildcats have spent the last two weeks traveling and to night, both the men’s and women’s programs will have their GLIAC home openers against Purdue Northwest. This will be followed by games against GLIAC newcomer Wisconsin-Parkside on Saturday.

For the Northern men, they’re coming off a week of different results. The Wildcats were dealt their first loss of the year by Northwood, but bounced back to defeat Saginaw Valley State two days later. Not surprisingly, Wildcats head men’s coach Bill Sall had mixed feelings when asked about his team’s last two outings, unhappy with the loss to the Timberwolves, but happy with the victory over the Cardinals.

“I was disappointed (with Thursday’s loss),” he said. “You always give the other team credit. They play hard and with passion. They played with grit and we did none of those things. (We) just had a very bad game. That was disappointing for our first league contest, to not come out with what I expected, a whole lot of energy and the necessary things you need to do to win on the road because it’s never easy to win on the road. I thought with juniors and seniors and me saying it enough times over the course of the week, we would’ve figured that out, but unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears. We did not play as well as I would’ve expected and Northwood played a really sound game. They played very well and (it was) a game that really was never all that close. They thoroughly dominated us throughout in every facet.

“I think a few things that happened as a team was that we had a revisiting of the moment and had some good discussions. That (Saturday) was your typical what you need to do in the GLIAC to win on the road. We grinded out a game. In the first half, we created 17 turnovers. We didn’t shoot particularly all that well, but in the same breath, we were able to withstand some foul trouble from Naba (Echols). I had a number of guys step up on the defensive side and just did an all-around great job of controlling the game from the beginning to the end.”

NMU Freshmen Guard Amber Huebner breaks for the basket as LSSU's Ella Bontrager defends in the first quarter. (Photo courtesy of Daryl T. Jarvinen)

One person who has definitely done an all-around good job for the Wildcats is senior Isaiah Johnson, who has won GLIAC Player of the Week for the second straight week and for the third time this season. He’s leading the conference with 25 points per game and Sall had lots of praise for his star forward.

“He’s off to a pretty good start,” Sall said. “When you win it three out of the four weeks, I think you’re doing all right. He’s always had a knack for scoring and he’s really doing it at an incredible clip. The good thing is that he’s actually attempting to defend a little bit. So we made a lot of great strides with him and it’s nice to see him be rewarded for his hard work.

“When you’re kind of on the streak he is right now, even bad shots start going in. He’s doing a good job of reading situations and I think the one thing that has really benefited him from last year is getting to the free throw line more because he’s aggressive at getting to the paint and not just settling for jump shots when he has the ability to get downhill.”

One team that is going downhill though is Purdue Northwest, who has lost its last three games, and is last in the GLIAC in 3-point percentage. Wisconsin-Parkside was in the same boat, having lost four straight until getting a win over Davenport in its last game. Sall said that even though both teams are struggling right now, his team will need to be ready to go both nights.

“It’s a brand-new coach and a brand-new team,” Sall said. “They (Purdue Northwest) have a lot of new faces. They’ve struggled a bit here in the beginning of the season. If you look at the last two games that they’ve played in the conference, Grand Valley (State) and Davenport, they’ve certainly battled. I think the team is starting to adjust to the coach and the new things that they’re doing. It’s a very different defensive system. They pressure up in a lot of variety of ways. So we’re going to have to be able to do more on the offensive side. Of doing a good job of taking care of the ball and make sure we can get downhill and make good decisions from there

“Parkside is a new opponent but we’ve played them quite often in the past. They’re a basketball program over the last 10 years has won a number of games and they’ve won the conference, so you’re going to get an incredibly well-prepared defensive-minded team. They’ve struggled a bit at the beginning of the year but they just had a big win. Davenport was undefeated at that point. You have to reemphasize it. It’s two more league games against quality opponents,, so you have to be ready to play your best.”

One team that may not be playing their best are the Wildcat women. Northern has won three in a row, but according to women’s head coach Troy Mattson, it hasn’t gotten to the level that it needs to play at.

“You’re always happy when you win, but what you need to do is take a good look at your team and see if you’re playing to your fullest potential,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve met that yet and we still have got some work to do. We’ve been working on some things defensively. At times, it looks really good, but we’re still learning it and it’s going to take us a while to learn it, so I’m being patient on the defensive end. On the offensive end, I don’t think we’re playing very well. We’re turning the basketball over a lot and we’re not finishing plays when we get an opportunity. Because of that, we still need to continue to work on those things, so we can potentially be the team that I think we could be.”

The good thing for Northern is that Purdue NW and Parkside are struggling on defense and are sitting near the bottom in the GLIAC in points given up per game. So if the Wildcats can start getting their offense going, this could be a breakout weekend for them. That doesn’t mean that Mattson and his squad will be taking either team lightly.

“They’re (Purdue NW) a dangerous team because they have the potential to shoot a lot of threes,” Mattson said. “It’s the one thing that we have been giving up. Our defense has been gearing toward stopping a lot of dribble penetration and keeping ourselves out of foul trouble. It has been doing that part, but we are giving up a lot of threes in the meantime. Close to 35 or 40 a game, which is what we’re going to try to limit, or try to have more contested shots. We’re giving up a lot of open looks and this team likes to shoot a lot of threes. Everything that we’re trying to do, they’re going to counteract us by shooting threes. (What) we need to do is contest threes better and know our assignments better, so we can at least be tough on them in those situations.

“Parkside has seven seniors and any time you’re dealing with seniors, they’ve been around and they’re not afraid to play at the college level. That’s probably going to be a big issue and we also know that they like to shoot a lot of threes too. I hope our defense is geared toward what we’re supposed to be doing. We just need to shore up a couple of issues, so it can be better than it already has been.”

The women play Purdue Northwest at 5:30 p.m. today with the men to follow at 7:30 p.m. in the Berry Events Center. On Saturday, the women take on Parkside at 1 p.m. and the men at 3 p.m.


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