The Northern Illinois women’s basketball team has picked the right occasion to get hot as the Huskies won for the fifth time in the last six games with a 70-58 victory Saturday over Miami (Ohio).
With the conference tournament being three weeks away, the win moves NIU up to 11-12 overall, 5-6 in Mid-American Conference play, and marks the end of cross-divisional play. The Huskies went 1-4 against their fellow West foes but rebounded to go 4-2 versus the East to grab a temporary hold on the fifth seed in the 12-team tournament.
With the No. 1-4 seeds seemingly locked up — NIU entered the game three games behind No. 4 seed Miami (17-7, 7-4 MAC) — the importance of staying within the No. 5-8 seeds is all about home court advantage in the first round game. NIU is 6-5 at home and 5-7 on the road, and has won three of its last four road games.
“It was a great win,” said NIU head coach Kathi Bennett.
“Our kids played very tough. I can’t say enough about them. This is one of the better games I’ve ever been a part of. You always want to be playing good basketball at this time of the year and I think we are doing that. I feel like this team is really coming together.”
Millett Hall has not been friendly to NIU lately, and to any opponent this season except Bowling Green, but the Huskies changed that with one of their best all-around games of the season. The last time the Huskies won in Oxford was in 2008 — a span of two games. Prior to the game, the RedHawks were 12-1 at home this season and had only lost to Bowling Green, who is undefeated in MAC play.
“The focus, intensity, and passion were great,” Bennett said of her team. “Everyone was locked-in from start to finish. I love the poise and execution that I saw.”
All NIU did was hold Miami to its lowest shooting percentage (31.6) since the RedHawks’ season-opening loss at Temple and third lowest point total (58) of the season. The RedHawks entered the game averaging 70 points per contest and shooting 41.7 percent from the field.
“We wanted to keep defending,” said Bennett. “We wanted nothing to go uncontested and we wanted to be physical, make them uncomfortable and throw them off rhythm.”
Conversely, the Huskies eclipsed the 70-point mark for the fourth time and posted their second highest shooting percentage (54.3) of the season.
Down 13-12 with 9:49 left in the first half, the Huskies ended the half on a 13-3 run that was started by senior Courtney Shelton (Rockford, Ill./Hononegah). First, she nailed three free throws after being fouled while shooting a three. Then, she teamed with senior Kim Davis (Evanston, Ill./Evanston) for back-to-back pick and roll assists for two easy Davis layups.
In the game, the senior duo combined for 35 points, 15 assists, 12 rebounds, and only five turnovers. Shelton was three rebounds shy of a triple-double with 13 points, a career-best 13 assists, and seven rebounds. She also tied a career day at the free throw line by going 8-for-9. Davis grabbed five rebounds while scoring a career-high 22 points on a proficient 9-for-12 performance from the field.
Following a Miami timeout, Satavia Taylor (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook) buried a 10-foot jumper, and then the Huskies got scrappy. Jenna Thorp (Hinckley, Ill./Hinckley-Big Rock) crashed in for an offensive rebound and put it back in. A few moments later, Davis did the same to give NIU a 25-16 lead at the half.
The stingy defense of the Huskies in the first half led to Miami’s lowest output (16) of any half this season as the RedHawks managed to shoot just 20.0 percent from the field. Meanwhile, the Huskies posted a 41.7 first half shooting percentage.
In the second half, Claire Jakubicek (Cary, Ill./Cary-Grove) connected on a jumper to start an 8-3 run that was capped by a Shelton three to force an early Miami timeout with NIU ahead 33-19. The break did not do anything to stop the Huskies as they would open up a 50-28 with 9:37 left after a three-point play by Thorp.
Facing their largest deficit of the game, the RedHawks turned up the defensive pressure and found better rhythm on the offensive end. As a result, Miami went on a 9-0 run and the Huskies turned the ball over four times due to Miami’s full-court press.
Once NIU finally solved the press, the RedHawks’ hopes of an incredible comeback dropped significantly. The important basket that calmed NIU down for the rest of the game was when Shelton escaped a double team on Miami’s half of the court to find a wide open Alicia Johnson (Chicago, Ill./Von Steuben) with a long pass for an easy layup. The score put NIU ahead 52-37 with 6:51 left.
From there, the game turned into a layup drill for Davis as the Huskie guards broke the press by throwing the ball over Miami’s defenders to a wide open Davis three times for easy layups. Amanda Corral (Hobart, Ind./Hobart), who scored 14 points, also joined the layup fun with two herself as the RedHawk press continued to falter.
“It’s hard to play with a lead like that,” said Bennett. “I thought Miami’s desperation was part of the reason they came back. I thought we held our composure really well, though. I’ve never been a part of a game like that where they throw five defenders at you [in their full-court press] and you throw over them for layups.”
NIU returns home for a mini, two-game home stand starting with a 7 PM CT meeting against Ball State on Thursday, Feb. 16, at the NIU Convocation Center. The Huskies’ final five games of the regular season will all be against their fellow West Division combatants as they will look to do better than 1-4 during the second tour of the West.
For more information on NIU women’s basketball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.