Trailing by 11 just past the midway point of the second half, Northern Illinois cut the deficit to just two, but was unable to complete the comeback, falling to Massachusetts, 64-59, on Saturday afternoon at the NIU Convocation Center.
A 12-2 run by the Minutemen to close the first half proved to be just too much for the Huskies to overcome.
Sophomore wing Abdel Nader (Skokie, Ill./Niles North) led NIU with a game-high 15 points, 10 of which came after halftime, and a game-best nine rebounds.
Junior forward Aksel Bolin (Asker, Norway/Asker) scored 11 points, freshman guard Akeem Springs (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan Township) added 10 points and freshman wing Darrell Bowie (Milwaukee, Wis./La Jolla Prep) scored a career-high eight points with five rebounds, three assists and three steals.
“We had 64 shots, they had 44 shots,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “We had 17 offensive rebounds; we only had three turnovers in the second half. We had three guys (scoring) in double figures, two more with eight and other with seven. We got better today. Unfortunately it’s a game of 40 minutes and we didn’t play for 40 minutes, but we played pretty good for 20 minutes.
“We have a young team that is mostly freshmen and sophomores, but if we play more like we did in the second half, if we can put full games together, we are going to have a chance.”
Northern Illinois committed 17 turnovers in the contest, but just three of those came after halftime.
After UMass opened the contest with a triple, NIU scored the next six to take a three-point lead, but the Minutemen answered with nine-straight to lead 12-6 with 11:20 to play in the first half.
The Huskies pulled back within three, 14-11, after Nader made all three of his attempts from the free-throw line, but a 7-2 UMass burst pushed the lead right back to eight, 21-13, with 9:11 to play in the half.
Six straight from NIU, including four by Bolin, brought the Huskies within a pair, 21-19, with 6:31 to play before the intermission.
With the Minutemen leading by three, a 12-0 run gave UMass a 36-21 advantage, its largest of the half, until Bolin made a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 36-23 at the break.
Maxie Esho led all scorers with 11 points in the opening 20 minutes; Bolin led NIU with eight. UMass shot 59.1 percent (13-of-22) from the field in the first half to just 24 percent (6-of-25) for the Huskies. NIU was 11-of-12 (91.7 percent) from the charity stripe in the opening 20 minutes.
A triple from Bolin trimmed the UMass lead to seven, 47-40, with 11:32 to play. The UMass lead grew back to 11 with 9:32 left, but a basket by sophomore forward Kevin Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) and a triple by freshman guard Daveon Balls (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) from the top of the key cut the lead back to just six, 51-45, with eight minutes left.
Balls had seven points and a pair of steals in the contest.
After a pair of free throws by the Minutemen, NIU used a 7-2 burst to pull within three, 55-52, with four minutes to play. Nader started the burst with a layup and then hit a trifecta before Kevin Gray capped the spurt with a layup to bring the Huskies within three.
Gray finished with eight points, seven rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end, and a career-best three assists.
The UMass lead swung back-and-forth between three and five until Nader connected on another triple with 58 seconds left, cutting the gap to just a pair, 61-59.
On the next possession, Northern Illinois got a stop and had a chance to tie the game, or take a lead with a three, but the Huskies came up empty and UMass made free throws to thwart the NIU comeback attempt.
Esho had 14 points to lead the Minutemen; Chaz Williams added 12 and Terrell Vinson had 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
The Huskies will be off until Wednesday, Jan. 9, when they open Mid-American Conference play at Miami (Ohio). Game time against the RedHawks is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT.