NMU men’s hoops: Wildcats learn hard lesson against first NCAA Division II opponent

MARQUETTE – College Basketball 101 is now in session at Northern Michigan University.

The Wildcat men faced their first NCAA Division II competition of the season Thursday night and Northern showed it still has a lot to learn in a 68-53 loss to Southwest Minnesota State.

“Effort-wise, we were all right. For the most part, we played pretty hard,” first-year NMU head coach Bill Sall said. “But our execution … well, we didn’t execute much tonight.”

Both he and Mustangs coach Brad Bigler agreed the Minnesota team’s adjustments at halftime, and switches to its defense during the second half, were key to the visitors breaking open a 33-28 game the Mustangs led at the intermission.

“We tried some different things in the second half, and I think we took them out of some of the things they wanted to do on offense,” Bigler said. “That kept them off-balance.”

The NMU coach knows he has to be patient with a group that has never played together before and has little or no NCAA playing experience at all.

Nine of NMU’s players are new to the program, six of them freshmen. The transfers and even the three holdovers from last season have only gotten limited playing time in past seasons.

“I feel like we know each other pretty well now off the court,” said Wildcat freshman Brett Branstrom, a graduate of Mid Peninsula High School. “But we’re really just getting to know each other on the court.”

Branstrom, who didn’t score but grabbed a rebound in limited playing time Thursday, agreed that a cohesive college team needs to know each others’ tendencies so their play at both ends of the court happens seamlessly.

That showed with the step up in competition that Northern faced Thursday as both teams now stand 2-2.

“Definitely their size was a huge difference from the other teams we’ve played,” Branstrom said. “They’re not just tall, they’re some big guys.”

Branstrom is a stout 6-foot-5, 225-pounder and could impose a physical dominance against a team like Monday’s opponent, National Christian Collegiate Division II team Grace Bible College.

SW Minnesota, on the other hand, listed four guys at least as big as him, such as senior center Nick Smith, who measured in at 6-9 and 240, and sophomore David Condon, at 6-10 and 245.

But it was the mental part of the game that befuddled the ‘Cats Thursday. An example was 6-5 NMU junior forward Justin Newell, the game’s top scorer with 15 points.

He scored 12 of those points in the first half, making 5 of 6 shots from the field. In the second half, however, he missed all four tries and scored just three points on free throws.

Sophomore point guard Terry Nash and junior forward Chavis Mattison were next in Northern scoring with eight points apiece.

Guard Matt Zager led the Mustangs with 13 points while teammate Shaun Condon added 11.

“All of it is a good learning experience,” Sall said. “I think Southwest Minnesota, if they played in the GLIAC, would be among the top four teams in our conference.

“They did a nice job switching defenses in the second half. We stopped running our offense and we weren’t able to do much of anything with the ball.”

Though Newell tied the game 2-2 barely a minute in, NMU never held the lead. SW Minnesota bumped its advantage to nine points twice in the first half, the latest at 19-10, but the Wildcats pulled to within three points three times before intermission.

The Wildcats managed to stay within 10 points for about seven minutes after halftime before the Mustangs rolled to their biggest lead, 66-47, with 2:38 left.

“I could see some panic in their (NMU players’) eyes,” Sall said. “It’s just one of the elementary aspects of basketball we have to learn.

“And you’ve got to learn ‘on the run’ a little bit.”

Northern plays its final nonconference game of the season when it hosts Lewis University at 3 p.m. on Sunday in the second half of a doubleheader with the Wildcat women’s game at 1 p.m. against the same Illinois school.