NMU women’s hoops: Gruber leads Wildcats to first GLIAC title since 2000

DETROIT – Despite being her team’s No. 2 scorer throughout the season, Northern Michigan junior guard Lauren Gruber often gets overlooked as a player whose many contributions aren’t statistical highlights.

Not so on Sunday when she posted a double-double with game highs of 19 points and 10 rebounds to lead her Wildcats to the GLIAC Women’s Basketball Tournament Championship with a 53-49 victory over Malone University on the campus of Wayne State in Detroit.

Gruber, who also led all players with three assists, was honored as Most Valuable Player of the tournament after being named on Friday night at the league awards banquet to the All-GLIAC Second and Defensive teams for her regular season play.

“That’s who she is – the bigger the stage, the tougher she is,” NMU head coach Troy Mattson said.

Gruber became the go-to player after Mattson said fellow junior guard Alyssa Colla, easily Northern’s top scorer this season, was swarmed consistently by Malone with double and sometimes triple teams whenever she touched the ball.

After senior forward Annie Rubendunst, who was named to the all-tournament team, scored nine of her team’s first 11 points, she and other inside Wildcat players also took up a lot of attention from the Malone defense.

That left Gruber as the player overlooked.

“Lauren’s a capable offensive player,” Mattson said. “But I knew it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to score (on Saturday). Our two teams have I think the two best defensive field-goal percentages in the conference.

“Add in playing on back-to-back days with the legs just gone.”

Gruber said she and her teammates gutted this one out to clinch the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Division II national tournament.

“We may be feeling fatigued, but we came out and were able to stay mentally tough for the whole game,” she said. “We didn’t want to just show up here. We wanted to win. I think it made it easier playing Michigan Tech first (in Saturday’s semifinals).”

Although the Wildcats, now 22-7, only trailed twice on Sunday for a total of 44 seconds, the Pioneers had their chances as the clock ticked down to the final buzzer.

Malone (21-10) pulled within five points with 31 seconds left and then got it to a three-point deficit, 52-49, when Malone’s Sydnee Penn hit a 3-pointer with eight seconds to go.

Northern held off the late charge by making four free throws in the final 25 seconds as part of a 16-of-21 day at the line. The clincher was a freebie Colla made with five seconds left that made it a two-possession, four-point game.

This marked the Wildcats’ 10th straight win dating back to Feb. 6 when they won at Grand Valley State 61-59 to break another streak, this one of losing five times in six games.

“That’s just the way it was going to be. It just happened that we made more shots,” Mattson said about Sunday’s close finish. “I have the utmost respect for Malone’s program and the job that Jason Mishler does as a coach.”

The Pioneers took what had to be the toughest road to get to the championship.

After earning the No. 5 seed for the tourney with a 14-8 conference record, Malone was the only road team to win in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, beating South Division champion and No. 4 seed Ashland, 56-54. The Eagles had been on an eight-game winning streak entering that game.

Malone then dispatched No. 1 seed, North Division champion and finals host Wayne State 61-53 on Saturday.

The Wildcats’ recent winning ways earned them the No. 2 tournament seed on a tiebreaker with MTU and Ashland. They dumped No. 7 Northwood at home on Wednesday, 82-64, before holding off No. 3 Michigan Tech 59-54 on Saturday in Detroit.

While some credit had to go to each defense, much of Sunday’s first half looked like a slow death by strangulation for the offenses with Northern taking a 23-18 lead into the intermission.

Malone missed numerous open shots from close range, including more than a few that completely missed the rim. At the other end of the court, the Wildcats made just one of their first 14 3-point tries, with the one made by Rubendunst coming in the game’s first five minutes.

But the Wildcats made four of six after that, starting with a halftime buzzer-beating shot that Gruber sank after she received an inbounds pass with two seconds to go from Colla.

“That was a big shot by Lauren because it gave us a little boost going into the locker room,” said Mattson, who also pointed to another 3 by Gruber and two by sophomore forward Nea Makela in the second half as important shots.

Malone took its final lead, 18-16 with 2:37 left in the first half, then went bone dry on the scoreboard for seven minutes to allow NMU to retake command, 32-18, following a Colla jump shot about four minutes into the second half.

The Pioneers didn’t give up, scoring seven straight points in just 74 seconds late in the game to get back within single digits and set up their last-minute rally.

Colla finished with 11 points, while Rubendunst and Makela each pulled in eight rebounds.

For Malone, guard Deborah Simmers scored 13 points, Penn had 12 and forward Logan Pastor matched Gruber with 10 rebounds. Penn and Pioneers teammate Selana Reale made the all-tournament team along with MTU’s Danielle Blake and Wayne State’s Shareta Brown.