Women Wildcats earn NCAA berth

John Becker

The NMU women’s basketball team did not take the GLIAC Championship trophy home last week, but the team’s postseason will continue in the national scene for the first time in eight years.

NMU head coach Troy Mattson said the team has been playing well, especially in the last couple weeks, and they are ready for the win-or-go-home scenario each game will bring.

“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to play the best teams in our region,” Mattson said.

The Wildcats (21-9 overall, 16-6 GLIAC) were productive over the mid-semester break with a 71-50 victory over the Ashland University Eagles (14-14 overall, 10-12 GLIAC) on Tuesday, March 2. Senior center Mariah Dunham was just short of a double-double with nine rebounds and a team-high 22 points, followed by junior guard Steffani Stoeger with 13.

On Friday, March 5, the ’Cats were also victorious in the GLIAC semifinals over the University of Findlay Oilers (21-8 overall, 15-7 GLIAC), 71-64. Dunham led the team in scoring with 27 points, followed by Stoeger with 18.

The ’Cats were defeated by the Michigan Tech Huskies (28-2 overall, 20-2 GLIAC) in the GLIAC Championship game on Saturday, March 6, by a score of 69-73. Stoeger was 7-9 from the court with six baskets as 3-pointers, and led with 24 points, followed by Mariah Dunham with 23. Dunham also had three blocks.

Mattson said the Wildcats had a great game, but so did the Huskies, which is why the Huskies were able to slip by with such a close victory.

“Tech had a couple great shots towards the end of the game and went 8-8 from the free throw line, and we missed a couple free throws and inside shots,” Mattson said. “Other than that, the game was pretty evenly matched. It was just two great teams going at it.”

The Wildcats earned an invitation to the NCAA Division II Tournament as the seventh seed spot in the Midwest Regional Quarterfinal. Mattson said he’s proud of how far the women’s basketball program has come under his direction.

“We were the last place team in this league when I took the program over and now we’re second in the league and in the national tournament,” he said.

The Wildcats were 6-19 overall in the 2005-2006 season, which was Mattson’s first year as a coach for the women’s team. The team’s season records have improved every year since then.

The ’Cats will play the No. 2 seed University of Indianapolis Greyhounds (26-3 overall, 16-2 Great Lakes Valley Conference (GLVC)) on Friday, March 12, in Houghton. This is the Wildcats’ first NCAA appearance since 2002, and the Greyhounds’ third consecutive. The last match-up between these two teams was in the Regional Semifinal of the NCAA Tournament on March 7, 1995, where the ’Cats took the win, 91-71.

Mattson said the team will have to focus on slowing down the Greyhound offense to solidify the victory. The Greyhounds score an average of 77.5 points per game compared to 67.1 points per game for the ’Cats. Greyhound junior forward Samantha Meissel has been averaging 19.6 points per game, followed by senior guard Jessica Canary, who has averaged 14.3. Meissel’s scoring average is the highest in the GLVC, and earned her GLVC Player of the Year honors. Meissel and Canary were both named to the All-Midwest Region First Team, and are eligible for All-America consideration.

“We need to be a little bit better on defense to make sure we’re not giving up opportunities,” he said. “I think we’ve played extremely well these last couple of weeks and we need to continue playing that way.”

Senior guard Christa Erickson said the team is thrilled to have achieved a spot in the national tournament.

“This is the first time for any of us to have been here, so it’s really new and exciting,” she said. “To come out of one of the best conferences in the country and get a chance to play for a national title is awesome.”

Erickson was one of three Wildcats named to the GLIAC North Division All-Conference Second Team alongside Dunham and Stoeger. She said it’s a privilege to be one of the few selected to the team.

“I was honored because we have one of the toughest conferences in the country and I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “To be named to something like that is what I’ve worked for my whole life.”