Huskies drop MAC tournament opener

Ebony Ellis
Senior center Ebony Ellis tallied 18 points and 15 rebounds in her final game at NIU on Sunday night.

The Northern Illinois women’s basketball team dropped its Mid-American Conference Tournament first round matchup to Ohio, 72-56, Sunday night at the NIU Convocation Center. 

The Bobcats (9-21, 4-12 MAC) claimed a 35-20 first half lead that sparked the victory as Ohio shot 50 percent to the field and held the Huskies (13-17, 7-9) to 30.2 percent. The loss ends Northern Illinois’ first season under head coach Kathi Bennett.

“I just really disappointed that it’s over, because I really enjoyed this year, especially this group of seniors,” Bennett said.

The game was the last in an NIU uniform for four players: Bianca Brown, Terriel Cannon, Ebony Ellis and Marke Freeman.

Ellis and Freeman will go down as two of the best women’s basketball players in NIU history. Freeman is only the third Huskie to average 14.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game for a career, joining E.C. Hill and Stephanie Raymond. Ellis ended her career with 995 points, 27th-most in NIU history, and 871 rebounds, seventh-most by any Huskie. Bennett credited the seniors with helping develop a team culture that fostered growth personally and between the lines.

“I think we really grew together,” Bennett said. “I really am thankful for the opportunity I had with this group.”

The Huskies showed so much growth through the season, two of their 13 victories came against regular season conference champions – Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley, and Toledo of the MAC on NIU’s Senior Day.

Northern Illinois couldn’t find that same magic Sunday night. The Huskies hit only two of their first 16 shots, allowing the Bobcats to build a double-digit lead halfway through the first period.  By halftime, the lead swelled to 15. The Huskies allowed 57.7 percent shooting (15-26) by the Bobcats in the opening stanza.

“We’d do good for most of the possession then we break down at the end of the shot clock,” Bennett said. “Give credit to Ohio, they shot really well. They came ready and they played a great game.”

The Huskies used an 8-0 run, their largest of the game, to cut an 18-point second-half deficit to 10 with 5:06 left. The Bobcats countered with a three-pointer from Erin Bailes, then capitalized on an NIU turnover to rebuild the lead the 15.

Bailes, a freshman who averages just over three points a game, may have surprised even herself by scoring 23 points, more than double her previous career high. Bailes hit 5-of-7 three-pointers and went 8-of-8 from the free throw line to lead all scorers.

Ellis led the Huskies with 18 points and 15 rebounds.  Freeman finished in typical stat-stuffing fashion, tallying 12 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals. Sophomore Brittany Callahan also picked up some of the scoring load, pouring in all nine of her points in the second half.

Bennett’s first season at the helm of the Huskies saw NIU win 30 percent more games overall and 75 percent more conference games than 2009-10, despite the team losing three starters. Her signature pack defense helped NIU hold opponents to less than 40 percent shooting in 15 of 30 games. Opponents were stifled to less than 30 percent shooting on five occasions. Bennett also collected her 300th career win as the head coach of the Huskies, and has now totaled 309 victories in 18 seasons as a head coach.

The Huskies are set to return eight players, including freshman Jenna Thorp, who redshirted this season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. NIU will add the services of five newcomers: Amanda Corral, Natecia Augusta, Janae Jackson, Claire Jakubicek and Satavia Taylor.

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