Three Huskies scored in double figures as Northern Illinois used the energy of an Orange Bowl Pep Rally crowd to earn a 65-54 victory over Southern Illinois Edwardsville on Wednesday night at the NIU Convocation Center.
Junior forward Aksel Bolin (Asker, Norway/Asker) led the Huskies with 15 points.
Northern Illinois (2-5) led nearly the entire way, including throughout the second half. SIU Edwardsville cut the deficit to just three with just over eight minutes to play in the contest, but the Huskies outscored the Cougars 16-8 in the closing minutes to earn the 11-point victory.
Freshman forward Sam Mader (Appleton, Wis./Appleton East) scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out a career-high four assists while freshman guard Travon Baker (Detroit, Mich./Detroit Consortium) scored 10 points, had four rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals.
The Huskies shot a season-high 52.0 percent (26-of-50) from the field while holding SIU Edwardsville (2-4) to just 39.5 percent (17-of-43) shooting.
At halftime, the NIU football team was recognized for its accomplishments this season and for earning a place in the Discover Orange Bowl. A crowd of 2,750, NIU’s largest men’s basketball crowd since the 2010-11 season opener against Northwestern, was on hand to salute the football team and cheer on the basketball team.
“I thought our guys definitely fed off the crowd,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “They came out passionate, hungry and attacking. These two guys to my right (Sam Mader and Aksel Bolin) got us going, and I thought we had sharp cuts and good ball movement early to get us going. We had to answer the bell in the second half because they made a charge, but then we took back off, which was good to see.”
The Huskies raced to a 6-0 lead as Mader found Bolin for a pair of layups before Mader converted a layup to give NIU the six-point edge three minutes into the contest.
A 9-2 burst by SIU Edwardsville gave the Cougars their first lead of the night, 9-8, with 14:50 left in the first half. But NIU answered with eight of the next 10 points, to take a five-point lead just past the midway point of the half. Freshman forward Darrell Bowie (Milwaukee, Wis./La Jolla Prep) had four of the eight during the spurt. Bowie finished with a career-high tying six points along with four rebounds.
SIUE pulled back within three, 20-17; until a 14-4 burst gave the Huskies a 34-21 lead with just under four minutes to play in the half. Freshman guard J.J. Cravatta (Streator, Ill./Streator Township) and freshman guard Akeem Springs (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan Township) each connected on triples during the run.
Bolin added a basket with 1:24 to play in the half to give NIU its largest lead of the contest, 36-21, before SIU Edwardsville scored the final four points of the half as the Huskies took a 36-25 lead into the intermission.
Jerome Jones led all scorers with nine points in the opening 20 minutes for the Cougars; Bolin and Mader each had eight to lead the way for the Huskies who shot 57.7 percent (15-of-26) in the opening stanza.
A 6-2 spurt to open the second half pulled the Cougars within seven, 38-31.
After five-straight points from freshman guard Mike Davis (Garfield Heights, Ohio/Garfield Heights) pushed the NIU lead back to double figures, SIU Edwardsville answered with 10-straight to climb within a pair, 43-41, with 10:52 to play.
The Huskies used their defense to widen the margin back to six as back-to-back steals and layups from sophomore forward Keith Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) and Bolin pushed the lead back to a half-dozen.
A triple from Kris Davis brought SIUE back within three, 49-46, with 8:21 to play, but Mader answered with a trifecta and the Huskies quickly pulled away with a 12-2 run. Baker and sophomore forward Kevin Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) each had a pair of free throws, Bolin connected on a triple and freshman guard Daveon Balls (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) capped the run with a pull-up jumper.
Jones lead all scorers with 19 points for SIU Edwardsville, Davis added 16 for the Cougars but the NIU bench outscored that of SIUE, 20-0.
The Huskies will have a quick turnaround as they travel to Milwaukee to face UW Milwaukee on Friday, Dec. 7. Game time against the Panthers is scheduled for 7 p.m.