Northern Michigan men’s basketball team upsets Michigan Tech shorthanded

MARQUETTE – Since taking over the Northern Michigan University men’s basketball program in 2010, head coach Doug Lewis has never done two things on the Wildcats’ bench.

He has never beaten the Michigan Tech Huskies and you’d be hard pressed to find a player who remembers the up-tempo coach telling the ‘Cats to “slow down.”

Saturday, Lewis did both.

“It was a big win,” Lewis said after a 59-55 triumph over Tech in GLIAC play at the Berry Events Center. “Michigan Tech had our number since I’ve been here. Our kids really dug today and we got a victory.

“We’re playing a totally different game than I want to play. I want to play up-tempo, but it’s all about your personnel. You have to make that adjustment.

“With us telling the guys to slow the game down, that’s the only chance we have to win,” he added.

With only eight healthy players suited up at the start and seven available in the game’s final two minutes, Lewis and the Wildcats slowed down the action and knocked off the Huskies for the first time in five tries.

The Wildcats only expected to have seven players dressed for the game, but were able to bring injured junior Scooter Johnson off the bench for 17 minutes before the transfer forward fouled out with 2:00 to play.

NMU junior Matthew Craggs, one of four Wildcats to play 38-plus minutes, said adjusting the tempo has been rough – but necessary – to survive in games.

“We have to do what we have to do because we have limited guys,” Craggs said. “We have to slow it down. If we played with speed, we’d all be too tired to play.”

Johnson, who totaled 10 points, was one of three Wildcats to reach double figures. Freshman guard Stephan Pelkofer scored all 11 of his points in the first half.

Meanwhile, Craggs tallied a game-high 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field and 2-of-5 from 3-point range.

Tech coach Kevin Luke said the Huskies had no answer for Craggs, except maybe hindsight.

“We tried three or four different guys on him,” Luke said. “The only thing we didn’t do was play zone. Maybe we should have.”

It was an unexpected game-high for Craggs, considering he was by no means the odds-on favorite to lead all scorers going into the first of two games between the Upper Peninsula rivals over the next 30 days. The next meeting will be on March 2 in Houghton to cap the regular season.

After scoring 57 points in two games last year against Northern, Tech senior Ali Haidar was the one expected by many – including Lewis – to lead all scorers.

Facing a consistent double team from start to finish, Haidar was held to a modest 19 points.

“We could have let him beat us by himself and he’s been beating a lot of teams by himself,” Lewis said. “We wanted to limit his touches and make other guys beat us.

“He still got 20, but if we didn’t double him, he probably would have had 40. Our guys did a good job.”

Luke said the double teams are nothing new for Haidar, who has been seeing up three defenders converge on him at times when he gets the ball since the season started.

“The double teams we feel comfortable with, but you have to make shots,” Luke said. “That’s the only way to get it to stop and/or get the ball in the block and we didn’t do either very well.

“That’s what the game dictated and Haidar wasn’t tough enough mentally to get the ball in the block and play like we should have played. Matt Craggs didn’t have any problem with it.”

Northern jumped out to a 12-3 lead on Tech, getting a pair of 3-pointers and a layup from Pelkofer, plus two layups from Craggs.

A trey by Husky junior Alec Culy 4:44 into the game cut the NMU lead down to four at 12-8. That became the widest margin either side managed to build the rest of the afternoon.

“Coach really wanted us to come out with the intensity that we came out with in our wins this year,” Pelkofer said. “We’ve had a lot of slow starts. We wanted to make sure we got a fast start today.”

The Huskies and Wildcats were knotted up on six occasions, with the last tie coming only briefly with 1:48 remaining in the game following the first of two successful free throws by NMU freshman Matt Iverson.

The second free throw by Iverson during his trip to the line followed a foul by Tech sophomore Phil Romback and gave the Wildcats the lead for good, 54-53.

“Northern Michigan in a rivalry game played like it was a rivalry game,” Luke said. “I don’t feel like we did. That’s my fault and that’s our players fault. It’s that simple.”

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens