Northern Illinois had a chance to tie the game with 14.8 seconds left, but a Huskie triple rimmed out and Buffalo escaped with a 59-54 victory on Saturday afternoon at Alumni Arena.
Sophomore wing Abdel Nader (Skokie, Ill./Niles North) scored a team-high 13 points while playing just 19 minutes due to foul trouble.
Sophomore forward Keith Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) and freshman wing Darrell Bowie (Milwaukee, Wis./La Jolla Prep) each added nine points for NIU. Freshman guard Daveon Balls (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) grabbed a team-high seven rebounds and dished out four assists.
Northern Illinois (5-17, 3-7 MAC) shot 61.1 percent (11-of-18) in the first half, but just 33.3 percent (9-of-27) in the second 20 minutes, falling behind by as much as 11 points before storming back to have a chance to tie the game in the closing moments.
“Anytime you go on the road and have a shot to tie it and go to overtime you have to be happy,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “I thought that it was a well-played ballgame on both sides of the floor. (Buffalo) is a good team, you can see that they are getting better and it was a hard-fought game on both sides.”
Buffalo (9-15, 4-6 MAC) held an early four-point lead, 11-7, until a five-point burst by the Huskies gave NIU a lead with 13:06 to play in the first half. A pair of free throws by freshman guard Mike Davis (Garfield Heights, Ohio/Garfield Heights) started the burst before Keith Gray scored the next three to give NIU a 12-11 advantage.
The Bulls answered with an 11-2 run, taking a 22-14 lead, forcing a Northern Illinois timeout. Out of the timeout, redshirt junior guard Antone Christian (Nashville, Tenn./Martin Luther King Magnet) connected on a triple from the wing to trim the Buffalo lead back to five with 8:28 to play before the intermission.
Christian’s triple ignited a 7-0 spurt by the Huskies, pulling NIU back within one, 22-21. Sophomore forward Kevin Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) added a baseline jumper and Davis had a layup during the burst.
A dunk by junior forward Aksel Bolin (Asker, Norway/Asker) pulled the Huskies back within one, 28-27, with 36 seconds left in the half, but an old-fashioned 3-point play by Tony Watson with 1.2 seconds left gave Buffalo a 31-27 lead at the intermission.
Watson led all scorers with eight in the opening stanza. Bowie had seven to pace the Huskies while Nader scored just two points while playing only six minutes due to foul trouble.
Buffalo scored the first six points out of the intermission to take a 10-point lead, 37-27. The Huskies pulled back within five, 41-36, just past the midway point of the half. Freshman guard J.J. Cravatta (Streator, Ill./Streator Township) connected on a trifecta from the wing and Kevin Gray added a 16-footer, but Buffalo answered with the next five to push the lead back to 10.
Back-to-back baskets by Nader, who came back in the contest with four fouls, brought the Huskies within a half-dozen, 46-40, with just over seven minutes left.
The Buffalo lead ballooned back to 11, 52-41, with four-and-a-half minutes left before the Huskies went on a 13-5 run.
Bowie started the run with a layup, Nader then added a triple to cut the lead nearly in half, 52-46, with 2:39 to go. Buffalo pushed the lead back to eight with just under a minute to play but freshman guard Travon Baker (Detroit, Mich./Detroit Consortium) responded with a pair of free throws to cut the deficit back to six, with 45 seconds left.
After Buffalo split a pair of free throws, Nader made a layup to cut the lead to just four, 56-52, with 35 seconds to play. Another free throw split allowed NIU to cut the lead to just three on a Bolin layup with 22 seconds left.
Buffalo went back to the line after another NIU foul and when the Bulls missed both free throws, NIU had a chance to tie with 14.8 seconds left. Out of a timeout, the Huskies went for the quick three, allowing time to get an offensive rebound in case of a miss, but the shot was no good, Buffalo came up with the rebound and Auraum Nuiriankh sank two free throws to ice it for Buffalo.
Javon McCrea finished with a game-high 16 points for the Bulls, Watson added 14 points and Nuiriankh finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The Huskies will return home for four of their next five, beginning on Wednesday, Feb. 13, when they host Ball State at the NIU Convocation Center. Game time against the Cardinals is scheduled for 7 p.m.