HOUGHTON - Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis took a 'last ride' all the way to the Super Bowl championship. Friday, Michigan Tech guards Sam Hoyt and Emma Veach begin their 'last ride,' and no matter where it ends, the Huskies are back in a neighborhood they want to see.
After a year on the sidelines, the Huskies are seeded fourth in the NCAA Midwest Regional and begin tournament play Friday at 8:30 p.m. EDT against the Panthers of Kentucky Wesleyan, in Ashland.
"It's kind of crazy. I can't believe it's my senior year and it's tournament time. This is really my last chance, so, I'm just going to give it all I've got and try to keep it going," Hoyt said.
In addition to being firmly within the top 10 in Tech's all-time scoring charts, Hoyt has ably directed the Tech offense to the fewest turnovers per game (12.7) in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and fifth-best total in the nation. That discipline will be necessary against a Kentucky Wesleyan team that will try to get after it up and down the floor.
"They're going to push. They're all under six feet tall, they're fast, they're spread, they're going to switch every screen. It's almost like every player's a lot the same because they can all attack, they all shoot the three," Tech coach Kim Cameron said. "They challenge you to match up with them, really, because they attack your bigs and their guards are very, very good and strong and big and physical and everybody can do everything. We have to make sure every person is committed to defending even if they're in an uncomfortable situation."
The Panthers (20-8) earned their second tournament berth in school history (the other was a first-round loss in 2011 when the regional was in Houghton) after tying for the best conference record in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Just because this is Tech's 18th appearance in the NCAAs, the third alone for Hoyt, doesn't mean the Huskies will be any less hungry.
"This is just an awesome experience for this team. You start to appreciate it a little bit more when it gets taken away from you. Last year we were not fortunate enough to make the NCAA Tournament and that is hard. It's hard to go through, especially with this group," Cameron said.
KWC's brand of ball has led to the third-highest scoring average in the GLVC (70.1 ppg) but also the third-worst defense (64.6 ppg). If Tech can settle the game down, Cameron is confident post players Kylie Moxley (6 feet) and Emily Harrison (6-4) can bruise the Panthers on the block. KWC averaged a minus-3 rebound differential.
"We're going to have an advantage inside as long as we can be strong with the basketball," Cameron said.
However, the Panthers will try to keep the game from getting into close quarters. They forced more than 19 turnovers per game this season and knocked down 6.6 threes a contest. With just about everyone willing to put it up, that means people not used to being on the perimeter are going to have to step out and step up.
"Everybody has to be able to guard everything and you have to believe that you can guard everything because our post players are going to be stretched out to the perimeter," Cameron said.
And if the Huskies pass their first test, they probably will have less than 24 hours to prepare for a third crack at no. 2 Ashland (which must first get past eighth-seeded Indianapolis), playing in the Eagles' gym for the second time in eight days. Cameron was encouraged by the last attempt, even if Ashland came away with the 81-68 victory.
"Ashland is very good and you can't have one single possession of a mental mistake. You can't have one missed box-out. You can't miss one out of bounds play. Your team has to be almost perfect and we were very close to that," she said.
Regardless of the outcome, stopping the tournament drought at one season was clearly important.
"It means a lot to all of us. Obviously it's been our goal from day one this season because the end of last season, it was disappointing for all of us. Right after the season, we all got together and kind of decided this is where we want to be at the end of the season. We wanted to be in the tournament making a run," Hoyt said.