NMU has simple game plan, but try to stop it

%0ABEST+BASKETBALL%E2%80%94Despite+losing+at+the+buzzer+against+UW-Parkside+on+Saturday%2C+Jan.+11%2C+Head+Coach+Troy+Mattson+believes+his+team+is+playing+good+basketball.+NMU+is+2-1+in+its+past+three+games%2C+and+is+led+by+senior+forwards+Erin+Honkala+%28pictured+above%29+and+Jessica+Schultz.+Photo+courtesy+of++NMU+Athletics

BEST BASKETBALL—Despite losing at the buzzer against UW-Parkside on Saturday, Jan. 11, Head Coach Troy Mattson believes his team is playing good basketball. NMU is 2-1 in its past three games, and is led by senior forwards Erin Honkala (pictured above) and Jessica Schultz. Photo courtesy of NMU Athletics

Travis Nelson

NMU Women’s Basketball Head Coach Troy Mattson said the Wildcats are playing its best basketball right now, and it’s clear why. Two players come to mind: Jessica Schultz and Erin Honkala.

The Pre-Season All-GLIAC senior forward Schultz has stepped up her game as of late, averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds per game in NMU’s last three contests. Honkala, a senior forward, has been the perfect co-pilot next to Schultz, averaging 8.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in the past three games. Especially with injuries to veteran guards Lexi Smith and Liz Lutz, Mattson said that the ball has to go into the post every possession. 

“If anything, I’d want to give the ball to two seniors and say, ‘go get us some wins’,” Mattson said. “And right now, I think they’re in that mental state and that they’re thinking the same thing. They’ve both played well.”

In those three games, the ‘Cats went 2-1, including two of them this past weekend on the road. NMU won the first game with ease in a 56-34 blowout at Purdue-Northwest University (PNW) on Thursday, Jan. 9, and then loss the second one in a 58-55 heartbreaker at the buzzer to the GLIAC North Division leader University of Wisconsin-Parkside (UWP) on Saturday, Jan. 11 after being up by as much as 18 points in the second quarter.

Against PNW, the Wildcats pounced early and raced out to a 21-5 lead at the end of the first quarter. NMU never looked back, as they outscored the Pride 14-8 in the second, and took a 35-13 advantage into halftime. The scoring finished at an even 21-21 in the second half, but the ‘Cats had already done their damage. Schultz led the way for the Wildcats with 20 points and nine rebounds, with Honkala not too far behind with 14 points and 11 rebounds. It was a balanced attack offensively for NMU, as junior guard Amber Huebner chipped in with eight points, and freshman guard Makaylee Kuhn finished with six points and nine rebounds.

“We played really well against Purdue-Northwest, we just shut them down completely, they had nowhere to go with their offense,” Mattson said. 

The Wildcats took that same defensive approach, and used it to take a big lead on the road against a good UWP Rangers team. After another great start, NMU led 15-0 right off the bat, an upset was in the making. UWP started to make shots, but yet they trailed 24-8 in the early stages of the second quarter. The Rangers continued to battle back into the game, but the ‘Cats held a 33-21 halftime lead. 

However in the second half, UWP flipped a switch led by sophomore guard Alyssa Nelson. Nelson caught fire, scoring 16 points in the third quarter alone after scoring zero points in the first half, and 6-7 from the field including a perfect 4-4 on 3-point shots. The Rangers outscored the Wildcats 25-9 in the quarter, and led 46-42. 

“They have a great player, and she just took over the game in the third quarter and got them back into the game,” Mattson said. 

The fourth quarter was a war, both teams went back and forth. After trading basket after basket, the Rangers held a 55-52 lead in the final minute of the game. Lutz, who is only 75% healthy or less according to Mattson, came throught with a clutch shot with 20 seconds left to tie up the game. NMU made another big play when Honkala stole the inbounds pass and gave the Wildcats the final possession, or so they thought. Kuhn took a runner to take the lead with two seconds remaining, but it rolled out into the hands of the Rangers.

“And then all kinds of crazy things happened,” Mattson said. 

UWP called timeout with 1.5 seconds left, and the timeout allowed the Rangers to inbound from halfcourt instead of the 94 feet from fullcourt. The pass was entered to who else but Nelson, and she sunk the game-winning 3-pointer to give UWP the win in an incredible game.

“When you go on the road and play that well, you got to feel good about the way you played,” Mattson said. “Unfortuately we got a loss in that second one, but who knows, we could’ve lost in overtime too.”

The Wildcats are now 7-8 after splitting the weekend’s games, but Mattson likes where his team is at this point in the season.

“I’m excited how we’ve looked over the past three games, we’ve played our best basketball and hopefully we can continue to do those types of things,” Mattson said.

With a weekend of games ending, brings a new weekend of games, and NMU squares off with Ferris State University (FSU) and Lake Superior State University (LSSU) on Thursday, Jan. 16 and Saturday, Jan. 18. Even with FSU’s fast style, Mattson says the game plan remains the same, and it involves a lot of Schultz and Honkala.

“It’s the same game plan we’ve had the last three or four nights. I mean they’re going to fast break as fast as they can go, and we’re going to go as slow as we can go,” Mattson said.

The Wildcats and Bulldogs tip-off at 7:30 p.m. inside of the Berry Events Center.