Basketball jumps into conference play after Minnesota clashes


Travis Nelson/NW

HEADING INTO GLIAC PLAY—NMU men’s forward John Kerr hammers down a dunk during the Wildcats’ exhibition win over Bay College on Oct. 28, 2021.

Travis Nelson, Sports Editor

Both of the Northern Michigan University men’s and women’s basketball teams completed the non-conference slate this past weekend with match-ups against St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth. 

The men were at home for their weekend games, and it was a struggle at the Berry Events Center. NMU fell to SCSU 89-73 on Saturday, and to Minnesota Duluth 76-63 on Sunday. Though both of the scores were similar, ‘Cats coach Matt Majkrzak thought his team competed harder in the Duluth game.

“Coming out of the weekend, I think that Duluth team’s possibly going to win the NSIC, I think they’re very, very good,” Majkrzak said. “And down as much as we were to be able to play them as tough and as close as we did, I think there’s a lot of positives about that one in particular. I wasn’t thrilled with the St. Cloud game, I thought we defensively, weren’t very good. I think we got to be tougher than we were, just with us being a little undersized, we really rely on our toughness and our energy and how hard we play. That was there against Duluth and not there against St. Cloud, I think we will learn from it.”

Guard Max Bjorklund was the brightest spot for the Wildcats, averaging 19.5 points per game in the two games. Guard Tre Harvey had 16 points in game one along with Bjorklund, and forward John Kerr hit double digits with 10 in Sunday’s game. 

What the non-conference season does is reveal what your team is like heading into the conference season that provides plenty of tough sledding. Besides health not being on their side currently, 3-3 feels right for the team’s record according to Majkrzak.

I remember last year after we went 8-8 saying, ‘that’s probably about right, we were pretty average this year’, I think 8-8 was a fair result”, Majkrzak said. “I think 3-3 right now, is a fair slate of where we’re at, we’re right now a pretty average team. I don’t say that lightly, there’s a lot of teams worse than average, I mean average it what it is. It’s not as good as we want to be, but it’s better than about half the teams, I guess that’s the definition of average in some ways.”

The hope is that Northern will get healthier for this weekend when conference play begins, with a few undisclosed players banged up. The ‘Cats will need all the help they can get with road match-ups against Northwood on Thursday and preseason conference favorite Michigan Tech on Monday. 

“I’m excited to get back into conference play, I think we’re properly prepared and (we) have some big opportunities ahead of us,” Majkrzak said. “I mean, at Northwood, at Tech is two tough road games to start the year, but also if you can find ways to win some of those games, that sets you up for the future in really good spots. Kind of excited to get back on the court, I think coming out of the weekend, we’re a little antsy to play again and kind of show that we can be a little bit better than we were.”

The women’s squad had a little more success than the men on the road against the same two Minnesota squads, including a win on Saturday against #14 Minnesota-Duluth. However, that win didn’t come without lumps in Friday’s loss against St. Cloud State. The ‘Cats only mustered 35 points on offense and struggled defensively in the 53-35 defeat, much to the displeasure of coach Troy Mattson.

“We did not play well,” Mattson said. “We struggled on the defensive end probably more so than anything, we gave up 22 points in the first quarter, which is unacceptable. We had three days to prepare, and we went over, and I don’t think our mind was where we needed it to be, we broke down consistently on all the things that we were trying to do.”

However, in a short turnaround that involved a players only team meeting and intense meetings with everyone in the program according to Mattson, the tide turned into Saturday’s nationally ranked upset. In the 68-57 win, guard Makaylee Kuhn had a superstar performance of 28 points on 10-15 shooting for NMU. What was apparently very noticeable to Mattson, was how hard his team played in that game.

“The intensity, the toughness to play the #14 team in the country on their home court and just how hard we played, is something that needs to happen every night for us,” Mattson said. “If you play hard, probably good things will start to happen for you, like shooting, like our defense. That was an incredible turnaround in 24 hours, I mean we honestly hit rock bottom I felt, I was hoping it was rock bottom. To turn around and then be on basically the top of the mountain, because of just the energy and the effort and what we needed to do to win that basketball game. It was probably the biggest win we’ve had since 2019 for our program, and I hope we can build on it.”

The women’s team is in the same boat with traveling to Northwood and Michigan Tech, both of whom are league favorites this season. NMU split with Northwood last season down in Midland and were swept by eventual league champion MTU. After a huge win against Duluth, it’ll be interesting to see if the Wildcats can keep the momentum rolling.

The schedule goes back to the traditional format, with the women playing first and the men to follow. Thursday’s tips against Northwood are at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., while the rivalry match-ups on Monday in Houghton are at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.