Junior guard Tony Nixon (South Holland, Ill./Seton Academy) scored a game-high 14 points as the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team defeated Eastern Michigan 55-52 on Monday night at the EMU Convocation Center to advance to the Second Round of the FirstEnergy Mid-American Conference Tournament.
The victory snapped a nine-game conference tournament losing streak for the Huskies and was NIU’s first road win of the season.
“I thought our defense was very good in the first half, maybe the best it has been all season,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery.
“We were rebounding the ball, we were scraping. We only mustered up 18 (first half points) but we were controlling the tempo and maybe they got a little frustrated. You have to credit our guys for being resilient, it has been a tough year but our guys kept competing in practice, they kept working, they kept the faith, they stayed positive and now a day like this lets you really enjoy all of that hard work.”
NIU shot 48.7 percent (19-of-39) in the contest, including 9-of-21 (42.9 percent) from behind the three-point arc, while holding Eastern Michigan to just 34 percent (16-of-47) shooting. The Huskies had 16 assists on their 19 made field goals, including career-best seven assists from freshman guard Marquavese Ford (Saginaw, Mich./Saginaw).
The Huskies held Eastern Michigan without a field goal for nearly 10 minutes, but were unable to capitalize as they held a 5-1 lead midway through the first half.
Leading by a pair, 5-3, NIU used a 10-2 burst to take a 15-5 lead with 6:45 to play in the opening half. Nixon opened the spurt with a free throw, sophomore forward Aksel Bolin (Asker, Norway/Akser) and Ford added baskets before a triple from senior forward Tyler Storm (Geneseo, Ill./Geneseo) and a corner jumper by Nixon ended the run
Eastern Michigan pulled within five, 15-10, until the triple by freshman guard Stian Berg (Baerum, Norway/Norges Toppidretts Gymnas) pushed the NIU lead to eight, 18-10, with a minute to play before the break.
The Eagles split a pair of free throws to close the first half, cutting the NIU lead to 18-11. Bolin led all scorers with five in the first half. The Huskies shot 41.2 percent (7-of-17) in the opening 20 minutes, but committed 10 turnovers. NIU held Eastern Michigan to just 13.6 percent (3-of-22) shooting in the first stanza.
The NIU lead grew to nine, 28-19, on a pair of free throws by Nixon, but Eastern Michigan responded with a 12-1 run to take a 31-29 lead with 11:40 remaining.
The Huskies answered with the next eight as freshman forward Kevin Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) finished at the rim and redshirt sophomore Antone Christian (Nashville, Tenn./Martin Luther King Magnet) and Berg connected on back-to-back trifectas, giving NIU a 37-31 lead with just over eight minutes left.
NIU and Eastern Michigan traded a series or triples, with six consecutive Huskie field goals coming from behind the three-point arc, capped by a Bolin three to give NIU a 49-44 lead with 2:50 left.
Bolin finished with 13 points, including 3-of-4 from behind the arc.
The Eagles pulled within a point, 49-48, but a scooping layup by Nixon pushed the Huskie lead back to three as the clock ticked under a minute.
Bolin and Berg each made a pair from the charity stripe, pushing the NIU lead to six with 18 seconds to play.
After a triple by Eastern Michigan Derek Thompson cut the lead in half, the Huskies went to the line, shooting a one-and-one with seven seconds left.
The first NIU free throw was missed and the Eagles got just beyond half-court where Jamell Harris fired up a desperation three-point attempt. Harris’ attempt drew iron but bounced out and the Huskies survived to advance to Cleveland.
NIU will meet Western Michigan in the Second Round of the FirstEnergy Mid-American Conference Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday, March 7.
For more information on NIU men’s basketball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.