NMU women’s hoops: Wildcats not overlooking Timberwolves in GLIAC quarterfinals

MARQUETTE – Many observers are already calculating the Northern Michigan University women’s basketball team’s odds of hosting the GLIAC tournament at the Berry Events Center this weekend.

Not Troy Mattson, though.

The NMU head coach knows his team has important business in front of it at 7 p.m. today when Northwood comes to visit Marquette in the tourney’s first round.

The Wildcats must defeat the Timberwolves for the third time this season if they want any chance of hosting the event’s semifinals and finals on Saturday and Sunday.

Mattson terms the Timberwolves, who finished at 12-10 in GLIAC games, “a good basketball team with a lot of firepower.”

“We just happened to match up well with them, I think because we’re bigger than them,” he said after Northern defeated NU 74-62 in Marquette on Feb. 1 and 56-46 in Midland on Feb. 22. “I expect this will be a game that goes right down to the wire.”

He said that is because nearly all the tourney teams are on even footing.

“I think there’s seven teams that can win this tournament,” Mattson said, including Northwood in that group. The only team he thinks isn’t ready to make a run is No. 8-seeded Hillsdale.

Hillsdale will have to pull off a road upset of No. 1 Wayne State to make the Wildcats the highest remaining seed in the tourney and the host school for games this weekend. If the Warriors defend their home court successfully in a game that starts at 7:07 tonight, the semis and finals will be at their campus in Detroit.

A Wayne State upset isn’t so far fetched, considering that its 80-74 victory over North cellar-dweller Lake Superior State on Thursday broke a five-game losing streak for the 17-5 Warriors. While one of those losses in the streak was at NMU, two others were to teams that didn’t qualify for the tournament – Ferris State and Grand Valley State.

It would be a crying shame if WSU got knocked off, but Northern did, too, allowing the semis and finals to be hosted by No. 3 Michigan Tech or No. 4 Ashland, especially considering the Wildcats are just about the hottest team in the league, having won seven in a row. The only other team that compares is defending national champion Ashland, which has won eight straight to finish first in the South Division.

“We’ve been playing great for the last month,” Mattson said. “We’ve had some absolutely awesome play. We’re finishing plays on the defensive end and we’re finishing plays on the offensive end.”

That was a problem for NMU when it lost five of six immediately before this hot streak began with a 61-59 victory at GVSU on Feb. 6.

“For those couple of games, we defended great, but we weren’t getting defensive rebounds,” Mattson said. “And on offense, we were taking care of the ball like we have all year, but when we would get inside, we weren’t finishing the play.”

Some tinkering with his front line straightened out those kinks. He brought freshman guard Bre Gaspervich and sophomore forward Alyson Matkovich into the mix, gave a bigger role to junior center Courtney Lemon and elevated senior forward Annie Rubendunst to a part-time starter.

Rubendunst and junior guard Alyssa Colla have picked up the slack since sophomore forward Anna Liewen went down for the season with a knee injury against Malone on Dec. 7. At the time, she was NMU’s leading rebounder and is still tied with junior Abbey DeBruin for the Wildcats’ most rebounds per game, 6.2.

“They’ve done a nice job stepping up in Annie’s absence,” Mattson said.

But the unsung hero has to be junior guard Lauren Gruber, if you listen to her coach.

“Alyssa gets all the press, but Lauren is our unsung hero,” Mattson said. “Every game she makes numerous defensive plays. She’s just so tough – a vocal leader and our ‘toughness’ leader.”

The other first-round matchups are No. 3 Michigan Tech hosting No. 6 Saginaw Valley State at 5:30 p.m. and No. 4 Ashland entertaining No. 5 Malone at 7 p.m. The Huskies’ game is earlier because MTU also hosts GVSU in the men’s tourney at 7:30 p.m.