DeKALB – For weeks, Northern Illinois women's basketball coach Carol Owens spoke to her team about transition and halfcourt defense.
Saturday, the Huskies heeded their coach's words.
NIU didn't allow Toledo to hit a two-point field goal for a stretch of 17 minutes, 42 seconds and the Huskies held on for an important 73-67 victory over the division-leading Rockets at the Convocation Center.
"I think the message got through," NIU coach Carol Owens said. "I think we worked on it enough. We need to continue to be conscious of it because I think teams are going to use that to their advantage."
The victory allowed the Huskies (10-15, 4-9 MAC West) to keep pace with the two teams ahead of them in the MAC standings in Ball State and Miami (Ohio), both of which won on Saturday. NIU sits in ninth place, with Ball State one game ahead and the RedHawks two games in front of NIU. If the Huskies can get into the No. 8 spot, they will host a first round game in the MAC Tournament.
The Huskies play at Ball State at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. An NIU win puts the Huskies in a tie with Ball State and gives them a split in the season series.
Should NIU and Ball State finish tied in the MAC standings, NIU would own the second tiebreaker (head-to-head is the first), which is record against individual league teams in the order they finish. NIU and Ball State are identical in that department until the league's No. 11 team, Ohio. The Huskies beat Ohio on Feb. 10 and Ball State lost to the Bobcats.
The Huskies gave themselves a chance to host a tournament game with solid defense against a Toledo (20-6, 10-3 MAC West) team that committed 17 turnovers.
"They made us really struggle for shots and forced us into several turnovers," Toledo coach Tricia Cullop said.
Marke Freeman led the second-half push and finished with 24 points, 10 assists and three steals as NIU extended its lead to as much as 17. Kylie York added 16 points, including 5 of 8 shooting from three-point range.
"With our offense we have screens," York said. "[Toledo's Jessica Williams] was sagging off a little bit and her hands were down. That gave me an opening to shoot."
The Huskies also got 16 minutes out of forward Ebony Ellis, who Owens has said is day-to-day with a foot injury for the rest of the season. Ellis scored five points and pulled down three rebounds in the most of amount of playing time she's seen since playing 27 minutes in a Jan. 6 loss at Toledo.
"We just needed to see what she could do," Owens said. "If she does nothing, her presence alone is just key. Teams fear her. They fear Mavo [Mauvolyene Adams]. But when you have both of them inside, it's always good."