HOUGHTON - With talent, success and pedigree relatively equal between Wayne State, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech and Malone in the GLIAC women's basketball semifinals today, it may come down to an unexpected X-factor to tip the scales for the tournament championship.
For the Huskies, that would be Paige Albi.
Over the past several weeks, the senior guard has played with a desperation that marks players nearing the end of their careers, scoring double-digits in five straight games including a career-high 21 against Northern Michigan last week and 19 in the quarterfinal win over Saginaw Valley Wednesday.
Michigan Tech’s Paige Albi drives to the basket during the GLIAC?Tournament quarterfinal win over Saginaw Valley Wednesday night at the SDC?Gym. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Albi can sense the end of her time in a Husky uniform is coming soon, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to postpone that date for as long as possible. With Northern Michigan today (at Wayne State) and a spot in the NCAA Tournament still up for grabs, the fifth-year senior has taken her game to its highest peak yet.
"I really feel like in the past month she has taken it to another level that we haven't seen before and to a level that we really needed as a team," Tech coach Kim Cameron said. "We needed someone to step up in absence of Kylie (Moxley) in particular. She has really done that.
"She doesn't let anybody go one play or one possession without letting them know that this could be the last. Every drill on the floor she is the best."
Albi led the way with 13 rebounds in the win over Saginaw - she is averaging just under eight rebounds per contest in this five-game stretch - and almost single-handedly kept the Huskies in the game after a dreadful start.
When she fouled out at the beginning of overtime, Cameron pointed to Albi's emotional response to amp up her team.
"Any game could be my last at this point, and I am just trying to play like it," Albi said. "You can't take a single possession off, a single play, because that play could be the difference between a win and a loss."
Albi's surge in scoring productivity - she averaged 9.3 points per game coming off the bench - has been necessary with Moxley indefinitely sidelined with a back injury.
Outside of Dani Blake and MacKenzie Perttu, the Huskies are short of reliable options to score game-in and game-out. Through a combination of hard-nosed drives and effective three-point shooting (11-for-23 the last five games), Albi has transformed herself into a necessary third option.
"She has always brought toughness, and rebounding and grit," Cameron said. "She is still bringing those things but now she has added scoring as well."
While nothing is certain at this point, a win over the Wildcats would push the Huskies in the right direction for locking up a NCAA Tournament bid.
Before the Saginaw victory, Tech sat at No. 8 in the Regional Rankings, the final spot to make it barring any surprises in the GLIAC or Great Lakes Valley Conference tournaments.
The Huskies were dealt a mixed hand from the GLVC, with No. 9 Southern Indiana and No. 7 Missouri-St. Louis exiting in the quarterfinal rounds. Upsets to Drury and Lewis - No. 1 and 2 in the regional, respectively - have opened the door for an unranked squad to steal a bid.
"I have no idea. Those (regional rankings) come out every week and make you nervous every week. Our focus is just get this one and then fight again on Sunday. We control our destiny if we get this one and then refocus again on Sunday," Cameron said.