Northern Illinois led for the first 34 minutes but was unable to hold off a late Ball State run, falling to the Cardinals, 53-51, on Saturday afternoon at Worthen Arena.
Freshman wing Darrell Bowie (Milwaukee, Wis./La Jolla Prep) scored 10 points to lead a balance attack for NIU; junior forward Aksel Bolin (Asker, Norway/Asker) scored nine points and grabbed a game-best nine rebounds.
“It was an unbelievable game,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery.
“Anytime you can come on the road, control tempo and almost steal one from the hottest team in the conference you have to be pleased. Credit Ball State for keeping their composure, coming back and holding on in the end.”
Northern Illinois (5-24, 3-13 MAC) out-rebounded Ball State, 35-22, but was unable to overcome a 27-12 foul discrepancy in the contest.
The Huskies jumped out to a quick 6-0 start in the opening four minutes of the contest. Ball State pulled back within four, 8-4, before a 7-0 run pushed the NIU lead to double-digits, 15-4.
Bolin opened the run with a basket, freshman guard Daveon Balls (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) got a friendly bounce on a triple from the corner and Bolin made a pair from the line to give the Huskies an 11-point lead with 12:34 to play in the first half.
After a basket by the Cardinals, Northern Illinois scored the next four, courtesy of another Balls triple and a free throw by Bowie, to lead 19-6 just past the midway point of the opening stanza.
Balls finished with eight points.
The lead reached 16; its largest of the half, 24-8 on a triple by redshirt junior guard Antone Christian (Nashville, Tenn./Martin Luther King Magnet) with 6:13 left in the half. With NIU dealing with foul trouble, five Huskies ended the first half with two fouls, Ball State finished the opening 20 minutes on an 11-3 run, cutting the Northern Illinois lead to 27-19 at the break.
Sophomore forward Kevin Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) and Balls led all scorers with six points in the first half. NIU and Ball State each shot 42.9 percent in the opening stanza, but the Huskies used eight offensive rebounds to get seven more field goal attempts in the first half. Both teams committed seven first half turnovers, but NIU scored 13 points off the Cardinal turnovers while Ball State scored just two points off Huskie turnovers.
Ball State (15-14, 8-8 MAC) cut the lead to six, 31-25, five minutes into the second half, but the Huskies responded behind a pair of free throws from Balls and a bucket by freshman guard Mike Davis (Garfield Heights, Ohio/Garfield Heights) to push the lead back to double-digits less than a minute later.
After a layup by Bowie put the Huskies up 39-29, Ball State used a 7-3 burst to cut the lead back to a half-dozen, 42-36, with nine minutes to play.
The Cardinals pulled within four until a jumper by freshman forward Sam Mader (Appleton, Wis./Appleton East) pushed the lead back to six, 45-39. Ball State answered with an 11-2 run to take a four-point lead, 51-47, with 4:18 left.
The Huskies pulled back within a pair on a steal and layup by Davis, the teams then traded baskets and Ball State took a one-point lead, 52-51, into the final minute.
NIU had possession with 45 seconds to play and, out of a timeout, the Huskies missed a triple try from the top of the key, but freshman guard Travon Baker (Detroit, Mich./Detroit Consortium) grabbed an offensive rebounds. After another timeout, the Huskies looked to have a layup but the ball was blocked off the backboard and rebounded by Ball State
The Cardinals split a pair of free throws with five seconds left and, without a timeout, NIU raced the length of the floor and had a look at a triple from the corner, but the shot wouldn’t fall and Ball State hung on for the win.
Juawan Scaife led all scorers with 17 for Ball State; he was the only Cardinal in double figures.
Northern Illinois will be the No. 10 seed in the FirstEnergy Mid-American Conference Tournament. The Huskies will travel to face No. 7 seed Eastern Michigan on Monday night, March 11. Game time is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT, 7 p.m. local time in Ypsilanti.