Late free throws by Gruber preserve NMU women’s basketball victory

MARQUETTE – Northern Michigan University used its halftime lead like a retirement account, much to the chagrin of women’s basketball coach Troy Mattson.

The Wildcats scrimped and saved for 20 minutes in building a 16-point lead, 38-22, only to spend nearly all of it in the second half as Lake Erie College kept chipping away before Northern held on for a 68-63 victory Saturday.

“It looked like we were tired in the second half, especially mentally,” Mattson said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t put this team away.

“We handled their press in the first half and that gave us a nice lead. This team has enough talent to be good, but we’re not a mature team. We made a lot of simple mistakes, and until we overcome that, we’re going to have problems.”

The Wildcats (8-5 overall, 5-4 GLIAC) have no seniors and only two juniors on their roster. The starting five Saturday consisted of four sophomores and a true freshman, 6-foot-2 Nea Makela of Finland.

But it was one of those sophomore starters – guard Lauren Gruber – who saved NMU when it most needed it.

The Storm pulled within five points, 62-57, with 2:25 left on a layup by senior Ashar Harris. Northern burned 29 seconds of the ensuing 30-second shot clock before Lake Erie forced a tie-up. Unfortunately, the arrow pointed to the Wildcats, meaning they had a second to get a shot up from an inbound pass.

They didn’t, though Lake Erie (2-9, 0-8) also missed on its next possession, prompting the Storm to start fouling.

The Wildcats managed to get the ball into Gruber every time after that, and she responded by sinking 6 of 8 free throws in the final 67 seconds to ice the victory.

“Lauren’s our best free-throw shooter, so that was good,” Mattson said. “She’s really been a heart-and-soul competitor for us at both ends of the court.

“She’s taken over with the attitude that she wants the ball at the end of the game.

“That’s especially gratifying as a sophomore who didn’t get a lot of minutes last season.”

Gruber finished with 12 points and four rebounds as the only player on either side to play all 40 minutes. Makela finished with team-highs of 15 points and eight rebounds.

Harris led all scorers with 25 points, while LE teammate Kaeding Skelton added 17.

Despite Northern’s big halftime advantage, the Wildcats actually fell behind 7-0 before an 18-2 spurt put them comfortably ahead with 13:03 left in the first half.

The run ended with a flourish as Gruber, and fellow sophomores Alyssa Colla and Maria Almquist, each hit 3-pointers in the final 1:39 of that turnaround.

Makela and sophomore Brooke Coenen hit quick 2-pointers as Northern enjoyed its biggest lead, 42-22, less than a minute into the second half.

Turnovers, rushed shots and inconsistent defensive play cost the Wildcats as Lake Erie made a 12-0 run and two others of 7-2 to force Gruber to win it at the line in the final minute.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is