Men’s Basketball off to best start in 30 years

Photo+courtesy+of+NMU+athletics.+%0ASenior+guard%2Fforward+Isaiah+Johnson+rises+up+and+slams+home+a+dunk+earlier+this+season.+Johnson+is+the+two-time+defending+GLIAC+Player+of+the+Week.

Photo courtesy of NMU athletics. Senior guard/forward Isaiah Johnson rises up and slams home a dunk earlier this season. Johnson is the two-time defending GLIAC Player of the Week.

Nate Bellville

The undefeated stretch for the Northern Michigan University Men’s Basketball team carried through Thanksgiving break as they swept the Ohio Dominican University (ODU) Panthers 89-74 and the Hillsdale College (HC) Chargers 80-68 in the Thanksgiving Classic hosted by Hillsdale University in Southern Michigan.

The sweep helped the Wildcats earn their first 5-0 start since the 1984-85 season. However, head coach Bill Sall has reminded the team every practice to not let the record consume them.

“As a coach, that’s always the biggest fear,” Sall said. “Truthfully, if we’re going to continue playing like this, we will have a great year.”

With the team coming together more during the offseason, junior guard Sam Taylor said the results are starting to pay off.

“We’re just coming out playing hard and sticking to our game plan,” Taylor said. “Over the summer, almost the whole team stayed and worked out together and we gained a lot of chemistry and now it’s starting to show.”

Last Tuesday, ODU got off to an early lead, but senior guard Kenton Mack’s shot sparked NMU’s eleven-point run to take an 18-11 lead. Fellow senior guard Naba Echols followed up with two more shots to make it 22-11. The Wildcats continued their offensive explosion as Echols and senior Isaiah Johnson made two straight threes to close out the first half up 50-33.

The Wildcat offense led off the second half with a free throw by Mack and a three from Johnson. The Panthers got to within 12 points with ten minutes left, but an “and-one” basket from sophomore guard Alec Fruin made it 68-53 NMU. ODU attempted a late rally, but the Wildcats offense surged on to an 89-74 victory.

Echols led the team with 27 points and six assists, while Johnson added 24 points.

Wednesday’s game was tight as the Chargers led 19-13 with 10 minutes left in the first half. NMU regrouped with a three-point basket by junior guard Marcus Matelski and a dunk from junior center Myles Howard help them take a 21-19 lead. The teams swapped leads in the waning minutes until a layup shot by HC’s Davis Larson secured a 35-34 lead at halftime.

The Chargers opened up the second half with three straight shots, but NMU retook the lead with 11:30 left thanks to a three from Fruin and another dunk by Howard.

NMU seized control of the game after Taylor and Fruin hit a three each with eight minutes left. HC attempted a comeback down by four, but free throws from Echols and Taylor helped NMU eclipse the Chargers 80-69.

Johnson led the game with 20 points, including a perfect 8-for-8 from the free-throw line. Echols followed up with 17 points and four assists.

“Coach [Sall] told us before both games that it’s going to be a playoff-like atmosphere because both teams made the [NCAA] tournament last season,” Taylor said. “We had to come out with a mentality of ‘if we want to be in it in the future, we want to play like it right now.’”

Johnson’s performances in the tournament helped him earn his second straight GLIAC Player of the Week honors.

“I’m happy for him. I’ve seen all the hard work that he’s put in and I’m glad it’s paying off for him,” Taylor said about Johnson.

NMU embarks on their first GLIAC road trip this weekend, visiting the Northwood University Timberwolves in Midland at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29, and the Saginaw Valley State Cardinals at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Saginaw.

With the majority of their non-conference schedule wrapped up, Sall said the weekend’s first conference games will be a test to see where the team stands.

“I tell them that you have to have that mindset when it comes to games that you’re ready to go, and this week, they will be challenged regarding that,” Sall said.