Ball State opened the game on an 11-0 run Wednesday, and the Northern Illinois women’s basketball team was never able to close the gap, falling 61-47 in the second round of the Mid-American Conference Basketball Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.
Junior Natecia Augusta (Peoria, Ill./Limestone) scored 13 points in the contest with five rebounds and a block in 31 minutes of play. Cardinal Nathalie Fontaine led all scorers with 17 points. Coming off a 24-point performance in the first round, Augusta closed the MAC Tournament with a team-best 18.5 points per game.
“If we had shot the ball a little bit better, been a little more confident, had a little more energy in our legs, I think it could’ve been a tighter game,” said head coach Kathi Bennett. “All the credit to Ball State. They did a great job to get the win and advance in the tournament.”
The Cardinals run lasted the opening 2:57 from tipoff as they were flawless at the free throw line in four trips. Junior Danny Pulliam (Indianapolis, Ind./Pike) broke the NIU duck with a layup on a baseline drive, pumping energy into the Huskie defense, which forced a turnover on BSU’s next possession.
Augusta picked up where she left Monday night, when she scored 24 points in the first round of the tournament at Eastern Michigan, as she hit four-straight jump shots to rally a 12-3 Huskie run, bring NIU back within four points, 14-12, with 10:26 left in the first half.
Pulliam and Ally Lehman (Nineveh, Ind./Indian Creek) turned hot to conclude the first half. Each hit two baskets, including a trey by Pulliam, as the Huskies closed the gap to 31-23.
Alexis Lindstrom (Howards Grove, Wis./Howards Grove) also hit a shot in the closing minutes, working around a screen and driving straight for the basket, kissing the glass with the ball.
Augusta led Northern Illinois with eight points, three boards and block in the opening frame. NIU was 11-for-26 in the period, owning a .423 percentage, five points higher than the Cardinals. BSU was 10-for-12 at the free throw line in the frame.
Lehman was the second half’s opening scorer as she drove to the basket with a layup, putting NIU within six, 31-25. It wasn’t until the 2:35 mark into the second period in which Northern Illinois attempted its first free throw in the game, making their first two free throws 4:04 into the frame on a pair by Jazmine Harris (West Allis, Wis./Heritage Christian).
Trailing 42-29 and the shot clock winding down to its final seconds, Lindstrom hit her first trey of the game to lift the Huskies to a 10 point deficit, 42-32. The sophomore started a 10-2 run for NIU as she hit another trey only minutes later, followed by layups from Lehman and Augusta, who became the first NIU player to reach double-digits on the basket.
After the Cardinals crawled back up by 13 on a Jill Morrison three-pointer with 6:05 on the clock, NIU brought it within eight points as the defense clamped down and recorded three-straight stops. After layups by Augusta, Lehman and Pulliam, and free throws by Augusta and Pulliam, NIU trailed 55-47 with 3:08 left in the game.
Ball State would close the contest on a 7-0 run to advance to third round and defeat Northern Illinois for the third time this season, 61-47. The Cardinals snapped the Huskies two-game winning streak and also won their fourth postseason meeting with NIU.
The Huskies had three players finish with 10-or-more points in the game as Augusta led team with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 31 minutes of play. Pulliam and Lehman each scored 10 points in the contest.
Off the bench, Lindstrom finished with eight points, going 2-for-5 behind the arc to close the tournament with 11 three-point field goals. She was one basket shy of tying the all-time record for field goals behind the three-point line, set by Bowling Green’s Tracy Pontius in 2009.
Upon reflection in the post game press conference, Bennett feels the Huskies’ late run was beneficial for the team moving forward.
“I think the experience for a young team to get to Cleveland was important. Our team showed in both games what we’re capable of when we’re down in games,” Bennett said. “Those are the important things you have to look at in the future because we do have pretty much everyone back next year.”
Northern Illinois ends the season 11-19, having advanced to at least the second round of the MAC Tournament in Cleveland for the second time in the last three years under Bennett.
For more information on NIU women’s basketball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.