Facing a veteran South Dakota State team that’s been to the NCAA Tournament four times since moving to NCAA Division I play in 2004-05 and was coming off an upset of No. 15 Nebraska, Northern Illinois (2-2) gave the Jackrabbits (3-2) all they could handle in a 59-58 loss Wednesday night at the Convocation Center in the Huskies’ 2012-13 home opener.
“I can’t say enough about how hard we fought,” said third-year NIU Head Coach Kathi Bennett, who had yet to lose a home opener with NIU before tonight.
“We had to overcome Amanda’s (Corral) injury and foul trouble with Jenna (Thorp) and Tay (Satavia Taylor). Every person stepped up. It’s a very disappointing loss, but they had to beat us. We fought with everything we had, but they are a veteran team. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament multiple years and just beat 15h-ranked Nebraska. We knew it’d be a tough game. I am proud of the team – we forced them to play well and did things to get them out of their comfort zone.”
Losing last season’s returning leading scorer Amanda Corral (Hobart, Ind./Hobart) to a left ankle injury with 5:55 left in the first half and then having starters Jenna Thorp (Hinckley, Ill.Hinckley-Big Rock) and Taylor (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook/Loyola) in foul trouble late in the game, the Huskies remained close thanks to other players stepping up.
The main player that rose to the occasion was Wisconsin-transfer Jada Buggs (Elkhart, Ind./Memorial/Wisconsin). With NIU down 41-35 and 12:20 left in the game, the all-around talent took over on a personal 8-0 run to put the Huskies ahead 43-41. First, she nailed a turnaround jumper on the block. After driving to the rim, getting fouled and sinking two free throws, she hit another jumper from the top of the key. To cap the spurt, she followed her own miss with an offensive rebound and putback in heavy traffic. She scored 11 of her game- and season-high 16 points in the second half as she was 6-for-8 from the field.
“She’s a very special player,” Bennett said of Buggs, who was recruited to Wisconsin by Bennett. “You can just see our future with her and all the young players we are playing right now.”
SDSU then went to a pressure defense and forced three NIU turnovers that led to six straight points to put the Jackrabbits on top again. But just when it looked like the game was slipping away, Ashley Sneed (Harvey, Ill./Thornton) cashed a three to tie it, 46-46, with 6:19 left.
However, SDSU answered with a three on its next possession. A few minutes later, Danny Pulliam scored two of her eight points in the game – all in the second half – to tie it again, 52-52, with 4:07 remaining.
Then Taylor fouled out two possessions later, which led to two made free throws for the Jackrabbits and a 54-52 lead that SDSU did not surrender. Taylor left the game with 10 points and was the only Huskie other than Buggs to reach double figures.
NIU had its chances down the stretch, though. Pulliam went to the line with the same score with 1:58 left, but only converted one freebie. Then after an SDSU layup in the post, NIU played the foul game and SDSU helped the Huskies out by making 1-of-2 two straight times.
Natecia Augusta (Peoria, Ill./Limestone) took advantage of the opportunity by grabbing a missed trey, putting it back and getting fouled. But she missed the free throw, leaving it a 58-55 SDSU lead with 13 seconds left. The Huskies fouled once again, SDSU again made only 1-of-2 free throws, and then NIU corralled the rebound to get off a last-second three that was made at the buzzer by Pulliam – leaving NIU one point short.
The Huskies trailed 30-26 at the half, despite starting the game on a 6-0 run – the largest lead NIU held all game. SDSU’s largest lead was seven points multiple times. The only significant difference in the game was 22 NIU fouls to SDSU’s 12, leading to a 21-11 edge in free throws attempted for the Jackrabbits and 12-6 advantage in free throws made.
NIU is now 34-22 all-time in home openers and 8-3 at the Convocation Center. NIU and SDSU had met just one time prior – a 67-42 win for the Jackrabbits in 2005 in DeKalb.