Monroe scores 31, Tech men showcase resiliency in 77-66 conquest of NMU
HOUGHTON — During Michigan Tech’s struggles this season, coach Kevin Luke didn’t question the Huskies’ toughness; he simply said they lacked it.
But there can be no questioning Tech’s mental fortitude in its 77-66 win over the rival Northern Michigan Wildcats Sunday at the Wood Gym.
What does toughness entail?
Toughness is limiting an NMU offense to 23-first-half points on 8 of 26 shooting.
Toughness is not folding after NMU steals the momentum and ties the game late in the second half.
Toughness is securing a loose ball for another possession to set up Tech junior Bryan Heath for a running layup and a 69-64 lead with 1:16 left in the game.
“We always need to be tougher, but I am pleased that we are making progress towards who we are and understanding what we have to do to be successful,” Luke said. “One of those things is staying within your system and execute and get the ball to guys where they can score … I’m feeling much more comfortable with these guys, and they’re feeling the same way and getting confidence.”
Tech held the edge in the hustle stats, outrebounding NMU 35-30 and finishing with a 17-5 advantage in second-chance points. The Huskies also scored 32 points in the paint compared to 16 for NMU (10-9, 8-4 GLIAC), whose offense settled for 3s where the Wildcats shot 11 of 28 (39 percent).
“I thought Tech did a great job of coming out with the energy and enthusiasm you need to have in a rivalry game,” NMU coach Bill Sall said. “But I was really disappointed in how we played. They beat us to every loose ball, and that’s a disappointment.”
Just like last season’s matchup between the two rivals at Tech, NMU had no answer for junior Kyle Monroe late in the second half. A year ago, Monroe scored a 3-point play and a hook shot to break a tie and give Tech the separation it needed to win 85-80. On Sunday in front of 1,453 people, Monroe finished with 31 points, six assists and six rebounds.
“There’s a reason why he’s one of the best players in Division II,” Sall said. “But as crazy as it sounds, I didn’t think we did all that bad a job on Kyle. He’s just that good. But our main focus was making sure a few other guys didn’t go off.
“We may have got caught by Kyle, but what are you going to do? He’s going to at least get you 26. We needed to do a better job a few of the other players.”
Tech senior A.J. Grazulis added 13 points while Heath finished with 10.
But with Tech (10-9, 7-5 GLIAC) leading 55-54 with 5:58, it was Monroe who took over, scoring 10 of Tech’s next 12 points for a 67-62 lead with 2:00 left. Monroe swished a 3 from the right wing before going 7 of 8 at the line as he took advantage of NMU being in the bonus.
“I love the pressure that comes in big games like this,” Monroe said.
Besides the ability to come through in the clutch, Monroe’s passing ability showcased his all-around repertoire. He connected with Grazulis on drop-off passes under the basket, and he also hit freshman Dawson Bilski for an open 3. Monroe’s six assists are one short of his career-high.
“His IQ is one that fits into this offense really well,” Luke said. “He’s a willing passer. I thought we made a good adjustment at halftime and slid A.J. under the basket. A.J.’s man was hovering around him and Kyle made many (great passes).
“I think (Kyle) is the kid who would be happy if he scored nine points and we won, but we need him to score more than that. We’ll continue to throw him the basketball; I don’t think that’s a secret by any stretch of the imagination.”
In NMU’s 77-65 win over Tech on Dec. 17 — the loss marked the start of Tech’s six-game losing streak — the Wildcats were able to consistently penetrate Tech’s defense, especially junior Naba Echols, who finished with 21 points and four assists. But Tech’s ability to not get beat off the dribble forced NMU to settle from the outside. The Wildcats shot just 4 of 13 from 3 in the first half as the Huskies built a 32-23 lead.
“We were really stagnant,” Sall said of the first half. “Credit to Tech. They took away a lot of stuff we want to do, really packed the paint, so we had to make some adjustments. It really came down to doing a better job of spacing the floor and attack downhill and looking for the kick.”
NMU made 7 of 15 shots from 3 in the second half. It was junior Isaiah Johnson’s 3 from the left wing that tied the game at 54 with 6:20 left as the Wildcats were on a 15-5 run at that point.
Johnson finished with 18 points, while Echols added 16 points, including 10 straight after Johnson’s 3 to cut Tech’s lead to 67-64.
“One of the problems we had on our (six-game) skid was that when we’d give up those runs, that’s where we would back down and not really run our stuff,” Monroe said. “We didn’t get too phased by that. (NMU) was hitting every shot they had, and we just did a great job of executing our stuff and not getting sped up.”
NMU finished 21 of 53 from the field (40 percent). Tech shot 27 of 56 for the game (48 percent).
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NMU 23 43 — 66
Tech 32 45 — 77
NMU — Carius 11, Echols 16, Taylor 9, Johnson 18, Perez 9, Matelski 3. F: 18; Fouled out: Echols; Free throws: 13-17; 3-point field goals: Johnson 4, Carius 2, Perez 2, Echols, Taylor, Matelski.
Tech — Monroe 31, Grazulis 13, Lucca 5, Appleby 6, Heath 10, Gordon 2, Bilski 3, Uren 4, Bell 3. F: 15; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 18-22; 3-point field goals: Monroe 2, Lucca, Heath, Bilski.