Neither team led by more than five points in the second half, but Ball State connected on 78.9 percent (15-of-19) of its second half free throws to edge past Northern Illinois, 56-52, on Wednesday night at the NIU Convocation Center.
The Cardinals came into the contest shooting 62.7 percent from the charity stripe on the season before making 20-of-26 (76.9 percent) to claim a four-point win over the Huskies.
Redshirt junior guard Antone Christian (Nashville, Tenn./Martin Luther King Magnet) scored a season-high 14 points, including four 3-pointers to lead NIU.
An early 8-0 run pushed NIU to a quick 10-3 lead. Sophomore forward Keith Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) opened the run with a basket and Christian followed with a pair of triples to give the Huskies a seven-point lead less than five minutes into the contest.
Keith Gray finished with nine points on a perfect 3-of-3 from the field.
After the lead reached 11-3 on a free throw by freshman wing Darrell Bowie (Milwaukee, Wis./La Jolla Prep), Ball State scored the next four to cut the lead in half.
Freshman guard Travon Baker (Detroit, Mich./Detroit Consortium) knocked down a triple from the wing to give NIU a six-point lead, 16-10, just past the midway point of the opening stanza before a 9-0 run by Ball State gave the Cardinals a three-point advantage.
The Ball State (10-13, 4-7 MAC) run reached 18-3, giving the Cardinals a 28-19 lead, their largest of the contest, before back-to-back trifectas from Christian pulled NIU back within three, 28-25, at the intermission. Christian led all scorers with 12 points in the opening 20 minutes; Jauwan Scaife led Ball State with 10 points.
Northern Illinois (5-18, 3-8 MAC) hung around early in the second half but wasn’t able to cut the Cardinal advantage under three until a short jumper by sophomore Kevin Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) pulled the Huskies within one, 34-33, seven minutes into the second 20 minutes.
Kevin Gray finished with 4 points and a career-high-tying nine rebounds.
Trailing by four, 37-33, the Huskies used a 5-0 burst to take their first lead of the second half, 38-37. Keith Gray started the burst with a basket and Bowie added an old-fashioned 3-point play to give the Huskies a one-point lead with 10:42 to play.
Bowie closed the contest with 11 points, his fourth double-figure scoring effort of the season, and four rebounds.
NIU continued to lead by one until a 5-0 spurt, started by a pair of free throws by Chris Bond, gave Ball State a four-point lead, 49-45, with 1:42 left.
Still trailing by four, sophomore wing Abdel Nader (Skokie, Ill./Niles North) connected on a triple to pull NIU within one, 51-50, with just 23 seconds remaining.
Two free throws by the Cardinals and a layup by junior forward Aksel Bolin (Asker, Norway/Asker) sent Scaife to the free-throw line with Ball State still leading by one with 11 seconds left. Scaife calmly made knocking in both shots giving the ball back to NIU, down by three.
Northern Illinois got a good look at a triple from the wing, but the shot rimmed out and Ball State split a pair of free throws to claim a four-point victory.
Scaife led the Cardinals with 23 points; Marcus Posley added 10 for Ball State.
The Huskies will return to action Saturday, Feb. 16, when they travel to Kalamazoo, Mich., to face Western Michigan. Game time against the Broncos is scheduled for 5 p.m. CT, and the contest can be seen on SportsTime Ohio and ESPN3.