HOUGHTON - More than four years ago, when Michigan Tech guard Alex Culy was still undecided where he wanted to continue his basketball career, he asked Huskies head coach Kevin Luke one decisive question.
"I sat in (Luke's) office on one of my final visits up here - and I am getting chills right now just thinking about it, this is great - and I looked at him and asked, 'Coach, can we win a championship here? Because that is what I want, I want to win a championship,'" Culy said. "He looked at me and he didn't blink. He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Yes we can.' There was so much conviction."
Saturday that question was definitively answered.
Michigan Tech’s Austin Armga goes for a layup around Northern Michigan’s Kendall Jackson, right, and Matthew Craggs during Saturday’s game at the SDC?Gym. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
With a dominating 72-48 win over Northern Michigan at the Student Development Complex and a little help from Lake Superior State upsetting Wayne State 72-70, Tech finished atop the GLIAC standings in a three-way tie with the Warriors and Findlay to give the Huskies (19-7, 16-6 GLIAC) a share of their first overall conference title since 2003.
"When I got here, we were 9-18 (in 2009-10). This has been building for four years," Culy said. "You go through moments in your career when you doubt yourself and think is this really worth it? It definitely is."
With a GLIAC championship on the line, plus an NCAA Tournament bid to help secure and the primal motivation of avenging a 59-55 loss in Marquette, Tech greeted the season-high crowd of 1,952 with laser-sharp focus.
Northern Michigan (5-21, 4-18 GLIAC)
TJ Cameron 5-9 2-2 15; Scooter Johnson 2-7 3-4 7; Matthew Craggs 5-8 2-2 12; Kendall Jackson 3-3 0-2 6; Stephen Pelkofer 2-6 0-0 5; Quinten Calloway 0-3 0-0 0; Spencer Huss 0-0 0-0 0; Joe Simon 0-3 3-6 3; Totals 17-39 10-16 48.
Michigan Tech (19-7, 16-6 GLIAC)
Ali Haidar 7-9 3-5 17; Austin Armga 6-8 0-0 15; Alex Culy 3-5 0-0 7; Ben Stelzer 3-5 1-2 9; Troy Hecht 2-4 0-0 5; T.J. Brown 2-2 0-0 4; Jordan Chartier 1-1 0-0 3; Matt Esters 1-1 0-2 2; Connor McLeod 0-0 0-0 0; Luke Heller 0-1 0-0 0; Phil Romback 2-4 1-1 5; Anthony Katona 0-0 1-2 1; Kyle Stankowski 2-5 0-0 5; Totals 29-45 6-12 72.
3-point goals - NMU 4-13 (Cameron 3-6, Pelkofer 1-3, Calloway 0-3, Simon 0-1); Tech 8-15 (Armga 3-3, Culy 1-3, Stelzer 2-4, Hecht 1-3, Chartier 1-1, Romback 0-1); Rebounds - NMU 16 (Craggs 7), Tech 27 (Haidar 10); Assists - NMU 9 (Calloway 4), Tech 21 (Brown 6); Total fouls - NMU 16, Tech 11; Fouled out - none; Technical fouls - none; Attendance - 1,952.
Collectively, the Huskies knocked down an astounding 20 of their first 25 shots to take a 15-point lead early in the second half. The offense connected on 64.4 percent of its shots for the game - and add six offensive rebounds off 16 total misses just for fun - to end the Wildcats' season with an unstoppable 1.28 points per possession.
"There were just so many things going into it," Culy said. "You have a packed crowd like that, plus it's the Northern game, plus we lost to them the first time - and then all the tournament stuff. There is no way to come out flat."
Strategically, the reverse of form from the loss at Northern was simple.
At the Berry Events Center, the Wildcats effectively doubled post Ali Haidar on every play and the rest of the senior's teammates didn't hit enough shots to make Northern pay. Saturday, Haidar put up an efficient 17 points on nine shots and the team knocked down 8-of-15 three-point attempts.
"I was finding my teammates and my teammates knew where to be," Haidar said. "And then they hit every single shot. When we are hitting shots like that we are unstoppable."
"We were really cutting into the seams a lot better than we were the first time," Culy added.
Along with the startling efficiency on offense, the Huskies unveiled a full-court man-to-man press for the first time this season in an effort to take advantage of their superior depth over the short-bench Northern squad.
A rotation of Tech guards picked up Wildcat ballhandlers Stephen Pelkofer and Quinten Calloway fullcourt and harassed Northern into 14 turnovers.
The eight steals were just an added bonus, however, as the main intent of the pressure was to force the Wildcats to speed up their play.
"They clearly controlled the tempo down in Marquette and we had to get it a little bit faster," Luke said. "We weren't necessarily trying to get a steal, just to wear them down."
Even with a 29-point lead with less than five minutes to play, Tech kept the press on to leave no doubt who the superior team was.
"I'm not in this business to embarrass, I am in this business to get us better today," Luke said. "And with that pressure, if we need it down the road, we will be able to use it. There was no intent to embarrass, I wanted to get better today. And I feel like we did."
With Haidar almost certainly earning a second straight GLIAC Player of the Year Award, the big man put an exclamation point on the season and conference title with a one-handed fast-break alley-oop slam in the first half that brought the near 2,000 fans screaming to their feet.
"Honestly, I thought it was a turnover," Luke said. "He came out of nowhere. That was pretty impressive what an awesome pass (from T.J. Brown)."
With the complicated points tie-breaker system, Tech finished as the No. 2 seed overall behind No. 1 Wayne and ahead of No.3 Findlay. The Huskies will host Northwood in the GLIAC Quarterfinals Wednesday at the SDC.
Tech swept Northwood in the regular season with explosive offensive showings in both games.
"We can enjoy this today," Culy said Saturday. "But then it is time to focus up. We still have other goals to accomplish."