The NIU women’s basketball team defeated in-state rival Illinois State in the season-opener Friday night, 55-51, as the Huskies carried a pus eight rebounding margin. NIU captured its first season opening win since 2009 as freshman Kelly Smith (Hartland, Wis./Arrowhead) led all-scorers in the game with 17 points.
The Huskies have taken the last two against ISU as they won the last meeting on Dec. 5, 2013, 57-52. NIU had never won two in a row against the Redbirds until this evening’s victory.
Since 2007-08, no NIU freshman had ever led the Huskies in scoring in the season-opener or scored at least 10 points.
“It was a great team win for us tonight. I thought we did a great job of staying together as a team and sticking to our game plan. We really showed a lot of mental toughness toward the end as well,” head coach Kathi Bennett said.
“We realized after our exhibition game that when things get tough, we need to stay together, no matter what’s going on, and I think that message got across because I really believe that helped us get the win tonight. There was a lot of confidence and faith in each other in our huddles during timeouts down the stretch and it felt good,” Bennett added.
The teams traded blows for the opening eight minutes of the contest as NIU and ISU were knotted, 10-10, at the second media timeout with 11:59 remaining.
A jump shot by sophomore Ally Lehman (Nineveh, Ind./Indian Creek) with 10:59 remaining in the first half gave the Huskies their final lead of the game, 12-10. The shot started a 15-4 run for the Huskies over the next five and a half minutes of play to put NIU on top, 25-14, with 5:30 left.
At halftime, Smith had already accumulated 10 points, going 3-for-7 from the field and 4-of-4 from the free throw line in 17 minutes. Jenna Thorp (Hinckley, Ill./Hinckley-Big Rock) and Lehman each contributed seven points in the first half as well.
Free throws were crucial for the Huskies in the contest as they went 16-for-22 at the charity stripe, making eight attempts each in the first and second half. Both teams accounted for 30 defensive rebounds in the contest. However, NIU worked the offensive glass as it out-rebounded the Redbirds, 14-6, which led to 11 second chance points for the Huskies.
ISU climbed back within three points of NIU with 4:24 as Katy Winge hit a jumper, 43-40. 12 seconds later, Smith made the only three-pointer of the game for NIU as it brought momentum back in the Huskies favor at 46-40.
When the Redbirds brought the game to within one point with 3:19 left in the second half, Thorp drove the ball from in front of the Huskie bench to the paint to convert a layup and put NIU back on top by three, 49-46. Lehman iced it for the Huskies with two free throws to increase the Huskie lead to seven, 53-46, with just over a minute left.
Lehman closed the game with 11 points, eight rebounds and game-best five assists in a career-high 36 minutes. Thorp’s effort on the evening included a team best shooting percentage, 5-of-9 (.555), with 13 points, six boards and three steals. Freshman Renee Sladek (Merrill, Wis./Merrill) had rebounds as well.
Winge led all ISU scorers with 12 points in the contest. The Redbirds committed 15 turnovers to the Huskies nine.
NIU returns to the floor Monday afternoon when it takes on the UIC Flames at the UIC Pavillion. Tipoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.
For more information on NIU women’s basketball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.