Kathi Bennett’s teams are known for defense. On Wednesday night at the Convocation Center, the nation’s third-best scoring team found out why.
The Northern Illinois women’s basketball team stifled, pressured, contested and limited Central Michigan to 38 points below their scoring average in a 59-45 victory. The Chippewas, who entered the game averaging an outlandish 83.2 points per game, shot just 26.7 percent from the field and saw their four-game winning streak come to a startling halt.
“I’m so proud of our whole team,” Bennett, who is in her first year at NIU, said. “They had intensity about them the whole game.”
The Huskies improved to 5-7 in Mid-American Conference play, and 11-14 overall, surpassing their 2009-10 win totals in both categories. After starting the conference season with four straight losses, NIU is 5-3 in MAC games. Central Michigan, which entered the game as the second-best team in the MAC West Division, lost for the first time in three weeks, falling to 16-8 and 8-4 in league play.
Northern Illinois proved to be up to the challenge of defending the highest scoring team in the league from the opening tip. Central Michigan started the game with three straight misses and never found the daylight to get its up-tempo offense on track. A pair of early 3-pointers by freshman Niki DiGuilio kept CMU’s attack on life support as the Chips scored only 10 points in the game’s opening 10 minutes.
Leading 12-10, NIU went on an 11-4 run to go up by nine. The Huskies continued to constrict Central Michigan to take a 30-17 lead before Kaihla Szunko put in back-to-back baskets to cut the lead to nine at halftime. Marke Freeman led the way for NIU with 10 points while Ebony Ellis has 10 rebounds in the first half.
“Ebony was so locked in and had so much energy,” Bennett said. “There is such a difference when she is not on the floor with our rebounding.”
The Huskies jumped on CMU out of locker room, scoring the half’s first five points. NIU built on the lead with defense, smothering Chippewa shooters to just 7-of-25 from the field in the second half.
“The second half wasn’t as pretty as the first, but we found a way to gut it out and get the win,” Bennett said.
Northern Illinois led by as many as 22 points, their largest advantage of the season, and the 14-point win was the widest margin of victory this year. Sophomore Kim Davis led a balanced Huskie attack with 14 points. Freeman tallied 13, with junior Courtney Shelton totaling 13 and Ellis finishing the night with 11. Central Michigan, which has five players average double-figure scoring, had only Szunko break into double digits with 10.
Northern Illinois plays three of its last four regular season games on the road, including this Saturday’s contest at Eastern Michigan, which is set for a 1 p.m. tip-off.