Trailing by 11 with eight minutes to play, Northern Illinois stormed back to take a lead before falling in the final minute at Eastern Michigan, 45-44, on Monday night in the FirstEnergy Mid-American Conference Tournament First Round.
The Huskies used a 15-2 run, capped by a triple from freshman guard Travon Baker (Detroit, Mich./Detroit Consortium) to take a two-point lead, 44-42, with just over two minutes to play. Eastern Michigan regained the lead on a triple by Jalen Ross with 32 seconds left and when a corner three for the Huskies rimmed out, NIU bowed out of the MAC Tournament.
Junior forward Aksel Bolin (Asker, Norway/Asker) and freshman guard J.J. Cravatta (Streator, Ill./Streator Township) each scored nine points to pace the Huskies who also got eight points from redshirt junior guard Antone Christian (Nashville, Tenn./Martin Luther King Magnet).
“We got behind but we kept plugging away and we kept playing defense,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “We took a one-point lead late and we were really just one stop away, but we couldn’t come up with the rebound, it took a funny bounce and they ended up hitting a three.
“We had a good look at the end, in March you need a little luck, and unfortunately that ball wouldn’t go in, but I loved the heart, the fight and the effort our team had tonight.”
NIU finished the game with 13 assists on 14 made field goals and just five turnovers. Sophomore forward Kevin Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) dished out a career-best four assists, while also grabbing a team-high six rebounds and chipping in five points.
Eastern Michigan jumped out to a quick 10-3 lead in the opening five minutes of the contest until a bucket by sophomore forward Keith Gray (Chicago, Ill./Brooks Academy) cut the lead back to just five.
After the Eagles pushed their lead back to eight, 13-8, back-to-back jumpers from freshman forward Sam Mader (Appleton, Wis./Appleton East) and Christian trimmed the lead to just four with 11:35 to play in the half.
With the Eastern Michigan advantage back to five, 15-10, Cravatta connected on a triple from the top of the key to bring the Huskies back within a pair with just over seven minutes to play in the opening half.
Christian buried on a triple to pull the Huskies even, 21-21, with three minutes to play in the half, but Eastern Michigan ended the half on a 7-0 run to take a 28-21 lead into the break. Da’Shonte Riley led all scorers with 11 points for the Eagles; Christian had eight to pace the Huskies in the opening stanza.
An 8-2 Eastern Michigan burst to open the second half pushed the Eagle lead to 34-23 with 13:26 to play in the contest.
The Eagle lead went back to 11, 40-29, on a jumper by Glenn Bryant with 8:07 to play before the Huskies went on their run. Kevin Gray cut the lead back to single digits with a pair of free throws, Bolin then knocked down a triple and Kevin Gray hit another free throw to pull the Huskies within five, 40-35, with six minutes to go.
A jumper by Ross temporarily pushed the Eastern Michigan lead back to seven, but Cravatta’s third triple of the night, followed by an old-fashioned three-point play from Bolin brought the Huskies back to within just one, 42-41, with three minutes remaining.
After another stop by the Huskie defense, Baker splashed home a triple to give the Huskies their first lead of the second half.
Both teams came up empty on their next possession and, following an offensive rebound, Ross hit a triple from the wing to put the Eagles back up one.
On the final possession, NIU missed its first attempt, grabbed an offensive rebound and had a second attempted blocked out of bounds with 2.1 seconds to play. Out of a timeout, the Huskies got a good look at a triple as time expired, but the shot rimmed out and Eastern Michigan escaped with the victory.
Riley scored a game-high 13 points and grabbed a game-best 11 rebounds for the Eagles. Bryant added 10 points and eight rebounds for Eastern Michigan.
Northern Illinois finishes the season 5-25; Eastern Michigan improves to 15-17 and will face Miami (Ohio) on Wednesday night in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Second Round of the FirstEnergy Mid-American Conference Tournament.