Trailing by 10 at the half, the Northern Illinois University men’s basketball team rallied to within a pair but could never retake the lead, falling to James Madison, 60-55, on Friday evening in the NIU Invitational at the NIU Convocation Center.
Sophomore guard Travon Baker (Detroit, Mich./Detroit Consortium) led the way for the Huskies with 17 points, tying a career high.
Junior Aaron Armstead (Chicago, Ill./Hales Franciscan/San Jose City College) added 16 points in his first start as a Huskie. Senior Aksel Bolin (Akser, Norway/Asker) chipped in five points along with a team-best eight rebounds and three assists.
“It was a very competitive game. Unfortunately they were able to get ahead by 10 (at the half), but I thought our guys fought back in the second half,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “We cut it to two, three or four times, but we just couldn’t get over the hump when we had a shot to take the lead.
“The free-throw line was an Achilles heel again today, but I liked that our guys were taking the ball strong to the basket and getting fouled. James Madison is a good team, they were a (NCAA) tournament team last year, they have some experience mixed in with their young guys and you have to give them credit.”
NIU (0-2) shot just 53.8 percent (14-of-26) from the charity stripe, James Madison went 9-of-15 (60 percent) from the free-throw line.
Leading by one, 11-10, James Madison used a 10-2 burst to take a 21-12 lead with just over eight minutes left in the first half before Bake curbed the Dukes run with a driving layup.
James Madison (1-1) took its largest lead of the contest, 28-16, five minutes before the intermission on a three-point field goal by Charles Cooke. Sophomore guard Daveon Balls (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) answered with a free-throw line jumper to trim the lead to 10.
That is where the lead would stay as the Dukes took a 10-point lead, 33-23, into the half. Ron Curry led all scorers with nine points for the Dukes. Aaron Armstead, freshman Dontel Highsmith (Dowagiac, Mich./Dowagiac) and Baker each had five to pace the Huskies. James Madison shot 50 percent (14-of-28) from the field in the first half while holding NIU to just 30 percent (9-of-30) shooting.
Highsmith finished with nine points and a pair of rebounds.
The Huskies scored nine of the first 11 points out of the half, trimming the James Madison advantage to just three, 35-32, just less than five minutes into the second stanza.
Following a basket by the Dukes, Aaron Armstead knocked down a triple to bring NIU within a pair, 37-35, but a triple and an old-fashioned three-point play pushed the James Madison lead back to eight, 43-35, with 13:19 to go.
NIU continued to chip away at the James Madison lead, getting back within two, 49-47, on a pair of free throws from Baker with 7:45 left. The lead ballooned back to four before Aaron Armstead converted on two from the charity stripe to once again get the Huskies within two, 53-51, with less than four minutes to play.
Back-to-back baskets from James Madison pushed the lead to a half-dozen, 57-51, and although the Huskies would once again pull within two, 57-55, they were unable to complete the comeback.
Curry led all scorers with 19 points for James Madison. Cooke added 13 points and nine rebounds while Andrey Semenov chipped in 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The Huskies will return to action today in the second day of the NIU Invitational. Action begins at 5:30 p.m. CT as James Madison takes on Milwaukee, followed by NIU against San Jose State beginning at approximately 8 p.m.
For more information on NIU men’s basketball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.