Freshman guard Dontel Highsmith (Dowagiac, Mich./Dowagiac) scored a career-high 27 points Sunday afternoon as the Northern Illinois University men’s basketball team defeated UC Riverside, 71-64, at the SRC Arena.
Highsmith went 9-of-11 from the field, including 3-of-5 from behind the three-point arc, and 6-of-6 from the line. Sophomore guard Travon Baker (Detroit, Mich./Detroit Consortium) added 13 points and three assists while junior guard Aaron Armstead (Chicago, Ill./Hales Franciscan/San Jose City College) chipped in 11 off the bench for the Huskies, who improve to 5-5 on the season, matching their win total from each of the past two seasons.
NIU shot a season-best 77.1 percent (27-of-35) from the free-throw line, including 18-of-22 in the second half as the Huskies led nearly wire-to-wire, taking the lead with 18:21 to play in the first half and never looking back.
“It was a huge road win to keep some momentum going,” said NIU head coach Mark Montgomery. “We played an unbelievable first half, going up 10, which was something we struggled with at Loyola (on Wednesday), so we got out of the gate and built a cushion for the second half. Great performance by Dontel Highsmith, scoring a career-high 27, Aaron Armstead is becoming an instant offense guy off the bench and Travon Baker added 11 points.
“I thought that our guys kept their composure on some tough calls that didn’t go our way, but we didn’t crack and we were able to come up with another road win.”
An early triple by Highsmith ignited a 10-0 run by the Huskies, giving NIU an early 13-5 advantage. Baker collected a steal and layup and Aaron Armstead knocked down a 17-foot jumper to cap the burst, forcing a UC Riverside timeout.
Out of the timeout, the Highlanders answered with five-straight, trimming the NIU advantage to three, 13-10. NIU answered with the next six, four from Highsmith, taking a 20-11 lead just before the midway point of the opening half.
Leading by seven, freshman guard Aaric Armstead (Chicago, Ill./La Jolla Prep) connected on a triple from the wing and Aaron Armstead added a basket off the glass to push the NIU lead to a dozen, 27-15, its largest of the first half, with five minutes left in the first half.
UC Riverside (4-7) cut the Huskie lead back to seven, 27-20, but a pair of free throws from Highsmith and a free throw from redshirt junior forward Jordan Threloff (DeKalb, Ill./DeKalb/Illinois State) helped push the NIU advantage to 10, 33-23, at the break.
Highsmith led all scorers with 11 points in the opening 20 minutes; Chris Patton came off the bench to score eight to pace UC Riverside. The Huskies shot 45.5 percent (10-of-22) from the field while holding the Highlanders to 32 percent (8-of-25) shooting before the intermission.
Highsmith scored seven of the first nine out of the break for NIU as the Huskies extended their lead to 42-30 in the opening three minutes of the second half.
An 8-0 run by the Highlanders cut the Huskie lead back to just four, 42-38, with just under 14 minutes to play. Nick Gruninger and Chris Harriel each had four points during the burst for UC Riverside, but that was as close as the Highlanders would get as NIU answered with the next five to push the advantage to nine, 47-38, with 10:19 to play.
The Huskies made their final 17 free throws in the contest, missing their last of the game with 8:55 to play, to help hold off any comeback attempt from the Highlanders.
Gruninger and Harriel each finished with 18 points to lead UC Riverside, who defeated UIC on Friday night (Dec. 20), 57-56.
With the win, and its comeback victory last Wednesday (Dec. 18) at Loyola-Chicago, the Huskies have won back-to-back road games for the first time since Jan. 6 and 9, 2010, when NIU defeated Chicago State (99-93) and Ball State (62-48) on the road.
The Huskies committed just nine turnovers in the contest, one off their season-low, and shot 45.2 percent (19-of-42) for the game. NIU recorded seven blocks, with Threloff and junior center Pete Rakocevic (Chicago, Ill./Wilbraham & Monson/Sacramento State) each registered three blocks.
NIU will return to action New Year’s Eve – Tuesday, Dec. 31 – when the Huskies travel to Ames, Iowa, to face the 17th-ranked Iowa State Cyclones. Game time is scheduled for 6 p.m.
For more information on NIU men’s basketball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.