DeKALB – They were baby-faced and antsy, jittering around the court.
At some times, a Northern Illinois defender would get a steal and start a fast break, only to trip over his feet and turn the ball back over. Other moments, a layup would clang off the rim, or defensive rotations would be neglected.
Clear signs of nerves. And this game, NIU’s 74-70 exhibition loss against Division III Carthage College in overtime, didn’t even count – even if that’s not how it felt afterward.
“I’m not going to lie, I feel pretty awful right now. I have got a bad taste in my mouth,” said freshman forward Abdel Nader, shaking his head after finishing with team-highs 18 points and 11 rebounds. “I just need to go sleep it off, and need to go right back at it [today]. We’ve got Purdue next week. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I already forgot about this game, and we as a team need to forget about this game.”
It was an inglorious, unofficial beginning to coach Mark Montgomery’s NIU head coaching career, a start that showed more youth than promise. And that was before Carthage guard Malcolm Kelly’s three-pointer at regulation’s buzzer rimmed out, helping the Huskies avoid a regulation defeat.
It would have been a disaster, if it wasn’t so expected. Montgomery has been open and honest since being hired in March. This is a major challenge, one of the nation’s biggest. Every upcoming difficulty was visible Friday.
Inexperience is the biggest issue.
“We have a young team,” Montgomery said. "A lot of times you look out there, and there will be five freshmen or four freshmen. So it’s a learning experience, and we’ve just got to get better.”
The Huskies’ nerves led to an unflattering 10-0 deficit to start the game. NIU responded with a 30-6 run to help take a 13-point halftime lead, and it looked like Carthage would go quietly.
But Carthage again scored the half’s first 10 points, part of a 19-5 run that gave NIU a 38-37 deficit with 15:08 left. The game was close the rest of the way.
“Those guys were hungry,” Tim Toler said. “They came in here thinking they could play with us, and they could. We’ve got a lot to work on, man. All the credit goes to Carthage College. They’re a really good team.
“It hurts. You don’t want to lose any games, man. But, you know, it’s a Division III school coming in here. We knew Carthage College was a pretty good team at their level, but we’re a Division I school. We’re supposed to win this game.”
No doubt, it was a bigger game for Carthage than NIU. It’s rare a Division III team gets the opportunity to knock off a Division I program. But effort wasn’t the only issue. There were also communication breakdowns, leading to too many open Redmen shots.
Toler didn’t need to watch the film to know the biggest problem the Huskies need to correct.
“Defense,” he said. “With everybody, defense is something that we harp on. We’ve looked better in practice than we looked on the court today. I don’t know what happened, whether it was knowledge or whatever. But we just didn’t play the game like we’ve been playing it.”