No. 18 Tech women win battle in the paint against NMU for 61-54 victory

Tech’s Elizabeth Kelliher shoots as Northern Michigan’s Erin Honkala (34) and Jessica Schultz look on Sunday at the Wood Gym.(David Archambeau/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — The Michigan Tech Huskies and Northern Michigan Wildcats took part in basketball’s version of a battle of wills on Sunday. In football, it’s two teams lining up in an I-formation and repeatedly ramming the ball between the tackles. In boxing, it’s fighters standing toe-to-toe and trading haymakers. Tech and NMU’s showdown felt similar, as they each repeatedly attacked the basket and fed the post as the two rivals clashed in a physical affair where just five baskets were scored outside the paint and 40 fouls were called. 

In the end, it was the undersized No. 18 Huskies who edged the bigger-bodied Wildcats, 61-54, in front of a crowd of 1,317 at the Wood Gym. 

Tech junior Elizabeth Kelliher scored 15 points and junior Michelle LaFave added 12 in what was Tech’s ninth straight win at home over its rival. 

“Over and over again, (NMU) was going to throw a punch and it was about what we were going to do,” Tech coach Kim Cameron said. “You’re either going to fall down or get back up and fight back. I thought we did that with every single punch that Northern landed. They were able to respond, and they were able to finish the game.”

Nineteen of NMU’s 20 made baskets came inside the paint. The lone exception was a jumper by freshman Lexi Smith from 12 feet out. Smith led the Wildcats with 19 points, but NMU (9-11, 5-7 GLIAC) was only able to convert 40 percent of its opportunities (20-49) as multiple post-ups ended with shots rolling off the rim. 

Sophomore Jessica Schultz scored 11 points and sophomore Erin Honkala had a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds.

“We missed a couple conversions that I thought we should have made,” NMU coach Troy Mattson said. “We made some pretty good moves and didn’t finish the play. 

“We think we have great depth at the center position. We’ll continue to try to wear people out inside and do the best job we can.”

For large durations, NMU had size advantages at all five positions on the floor. The height difference was apparent during NMU’s nine blocks and played a factor in the Wildcats looking to throw the ball into the post on nearly every halfcourt set. NMU didn’t attempt a 3 until the end of the third quarter when the shot clock was winding down and had just two shots from 3 all game — both misses. 

The Huskies didn’t record a 3 until senior Lindsay Winter swished one from the right wing for a 50-40 lead with 7:28 left in the fourth quarter. Tech shot just 1 of 9 from deep, but unlike 11 days ago when Tech shot 3 of 20 from 3-point range, in a 50-40 loss to Wayne State, the Huskies found other ways to score without the help of their perimeter shooting. 

Tech converted 16 of 18 attempts at the free-throw line and scored in the paint on 18 of 22 made baskets. 

“Our post play is so important, but even seeing Brenna Heise attack and not settle for 15-18-foot jumpers along the baseline, she was making layups today and getting to the free-throw line,” Cameron said. “We are starting to pay attention to the things that are going to work and make us successful.”

Kelliher scored seven of Tech’s first 10 points to start the fourth quarter and her two layups on back-to-back possessions put Tech (15-3, 10-2 GLIAC) ahead 54-44 with 5:21 left in the fourth for the separation Tech would need. 

“I definitely have to rely more on using counter moves,” Kelliher said of attacking NMU’s taller, bigger defenders. “A lot of times having patience down low is really important in those kinds of situations.”

A layup by Heise in transition off an NMU turnover gave Tech a 56-44 lead with 4:52 remaining. But NMU would hold Tech scoreless over the 4:06 and go on an 8-0 run to trim the deficit to 56-52. A running layup by senior Lindsay Winter ended Tech’s drought with 46 seconds left in the game. 

“I thought we did a great job in a couple stretches that really helped us out in the end,” Cameron said. 

Before NMU’s length could limit Tech’s offense, the Huskies started the game making 8 of 16 shots to take a 19-10 lead after the first quarter.Tech utilized its speed and quickness to score on layups and drives to the basket, finishing with 12 first-quarter points in the paint. 

From there, Tech shot 14 of 38 the rest of the way (37 percent) to shoot 22 of 54 overall (41 percent). 

“We just had to toughen up a little bit,” Mattson said of the improved defense. “Just getting used to the speed of the game right away and buckling down a little bit. Kelliher got a couple of lobs inside and that hurt us. 

“For the most part, I thought it was a really good basketball game for both ends. Both teams were really competing hard out there and fighting for everything they could. I think the better team won, but I think we’re getting close to where we need to be.

– – – 

NMU 10 17 9 18 — 54

Tech 19 14 11 17 — 61

NMU — Honkala 10, Schultz 11, Lutz 6, Smith 19, Schramek 2, Hodell 6. F: 18; Fouled out: None; Free throws: 14-19; 3-point field goals: None. 

Tech — Stoll 8, Kelliher 15, Guy 4, Winter 9, Heise 9, Trotter 1, Hobson 1, LaFave 12, O’Brien 2. F: 22; Fouled out: LaFave; Free throws: 16-18; 3-point field goals: Winter.