Decades-best season comes to a sudden halt

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Senior guard/forward Isaiah Johnson drives down the lane aggressively in a matchup against Michigan Tech University earlier in the season.
Photo courtesy of NMU athletics

Nate Bellville

A promising season filled with championship ambitions for the Northern Michigan University Men’s Basketball team came to a close in the GLIAC Tournament as they lost 88-77 to the No.8 ranked Davenport University (DU) Panthers.

The Wildcats end their season with a 17-12 overall record, 11-9 in GLIAC play. The team also finished with both seniors Naba Echols and Isaiah Johnson making the all-GLIAC First Team for the second straight year.

Sophomore guard Alec Fruin’s shot started off Tuesday’s game against the defending Division II National Champion Ferris State University (FSU) Bulldogs, but FSU bounced ahead to an 8-2 lead. NMU tied the game at 9 after a layup by redshirt-freshman Troy Summers, then took an 11-9 lead after a shot by junior guard Sam Taylor. Just as NMU began to pull away, the Bulldogs cut their deficit to only one point with four minutes remaining, but a 10-0 Wildcat run closed out the half with NMU leading 41-30.

NMU raced out to a 55-37 lead out of the break, then a shot by junior guard Marcus Matelski, along with Fruin making NMU’s only three of the game, raised the score to 60-37. Shots by Echols and Johnson made it 64-47 with 11:17 left. FSU only got to within 15 points, but the Wildcats cruised to an 89-73 victory to advance to their first semifinals appearance since 2007 and their first win over FSU in eight games.

Johnson led NMU with 29 points and Echols followed up with 21 points. The duo combined to shoot 15-for-15 from the free-throw line.

In the semifinal game against DU, Echols scored eight straight points to put NMU up 8-2 early in the first half. The Panthers scored a five point run, but a three by Taylor gave NMU a 14-10 lead. DU would take a 30-24 lead but Johnson’s ‘and-one’ play propelled NMU’s rally to be down by three points. Two threes by Echols and a Johnson layup eventually sent the game into halftime tied at 40.

Out of the break, Johnson netted another ‘and-one’ to make it 45-43 NMU, but DU responded with eight points, retaking a 51-47 lead. The Panthers extended their lead to 11, before a dunk by junior center Myles Howard made it 60-51. After Howard’s second dunk, DU’s Dyllon Hudson-Emery and Janeau Jobert added shots to make it 69-60 Panthers. The Wildcats would only get to within eight points after Echols’ threes and Taylor’s layup, but DU held on to win 88-77.

Echols led the game with 28 points, with Johnson recording a double-double of 17 points and 14 rebounds.

Wrapping up successful careers, Johnson paced NMU with a 20.3 points-per-game (ppg) average and Echols followed with 19.2 ppg. The duo led the GLIAC from the charity stripe with Johnson making 5.4 free throws per game, with Echols’ 4.9 free throws per game.

Howard and Taylor were also named to the all-GLIAC Defensive Team for the second straight year. Howard blocked 77 shots while accounting for 2.9 blocks per game, placing sixth nationally in both categories. Taylor recorded 48 steals and averaged 1.7 steals-per-game.

Echols and Johnson both will graduate as part of the 1,000-point club. Echols eclipsed the mark in the 2017-18 season at Wayne State University, while Johnson reached it earlier this season against Lewis University.

Howard, Taylor, Matelski and junior guard Ian Hodges are all expected to return next season as seniors as the team looks to improve on its most successful season of the past decade.