DeKALB – For spurts, Thursday looked like the game between the bottom two seeds in the upcoming Mid-American Conference Tournament.
But the final minute belonged to Northern Illinois, as the Huskies used a critical steal from Jake Anderson, a putback from Xavier Silas and withstood a missed wide open, game-winning three-pointer from Toledo’s Jake Barnett to survive with a 60-58 victory at the Convocation Center.
“It was great to see our defense show up down the stretch,” NIU coach Ricardo Patton said. “We got some terrific stops, steals and converted those to easy buckets.
“We’ve been on Xavier all year on crashing the offensive boards and he came up with one offensive rebound tonight, but it was huge.”
The Huskies are the No. 11 seed in the MAC Tournament and will play the No. 6 seed Eastern Michigan at 1 p.m. on Sunday in Ypsilanti, Mich.
As they’ve done for most of the season, the Huskies (10-19, 6-10 MAC) struggled to get stops at key times throughout Thursday against the lowly Rockets (4-27, 1-15 MAC). That was, until the final minutes.
After NIU center Sean Kowal made one of two free throws to tie the game at 58, the Rockets came down with the shot clock off, looking for one shot to win the game.
Anderson saw an opening when Toledo’s Malcom Griffin held out his dribble for too long and the NIU guard struck, swiping it and moving up the court. Anderson’s short shot bounced out but Silas came in on the finish and scored with 1.6 seconds left.
“Jake was driving him left and I actually thought he was going to make it because he’s won games before like that,” Silas said. “I just went and [Justin Anyijong] went and tried to go and block his shot and I came and followed it and tipped it in.”
But the Huskies likely wouldn’t have arrived at the point where Silas could win the game for them without the play of Jeremy Landers in the final minutes.
Landers hit a three-pointer to cut the Toledo lead to one, then forced a Griffin turnover that led to Kowal’s free throws. The Rockets ended up turning over the ball on three straight possessions before Barnett’s missed three.
“I don’t think we’re in position [to win],” Patton said. “You had to have someone that you could insert into the game that could play the level of defense that Jeremy can play, and that’s why he’s been inserted into the lineup the last couple of games.”
The Huskies split the season series with Eastern Michigan this season, with both teams winning at home. The two teams played most recently on Feb. 27, with the Huskies falling, 66-60.