WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Finally, Northern Illinois was going to find relief.
Keith Gray clutched the basketball under NIU’s rim, thanks to Antone Christian’s desperate lob pass to beat a double-team. No one blocked Gray from the basket. Time to dunk.
Except, while the freshman headed for the hoop, Purdue’s D.J. Byrd came from behind him, out of nowhere. Byrd didn’t block Gray, but his presence was enough to ruin the play.
“Their hands were always moving,” Christian said of the Boilermakers’ defense. “They were always in our grill.”
Purdue didn’t stop until it gave NIU a 96-34 loss Friday in front of a crowd of 14,719 at Mackey Arena. Its defensive pressure forced the Huskies (0-1) to shoot 24.6 percent from the field, turn the ball over 28 times and, most importantly, play a faster tempo than a freshman-laden team wanted.
Even when no Boilermakers (1-0) were around, the Huskies were playing ghosts – traveling in the open court, open shots missing the rim.
NIU’s 62-point loss to open coach Mark Montgomery’s tenure was the largest margin of defeat in the program's 112-year history, eclipsing the Huskies 117-66 loss Dec. 3, 1986 at Bradley. It paired programs in opposite positions – one perennially ranked near the nation’s top 25, the other searching for positives after five straight 20-loss seasons.
But, as devastating as the final box score appeared, it did not steal Montgomery’s humor.
“I thought the NBA was on strike,” the former Michigan State assistant said after playing Purdue for the 32nd time, 16th at Mackey, and personally falling to 2-3 at Purdue in the past five seasons. “Obviously, we ran into a good team.”
This was not losing to a Division III program, as NIU did against Carthage in its lone exhibition game last week. There were no jokes after that one, just blank stares.
Purdue clearly had more talent, perhaps enough to challenge for another Big Ten title. And, with Boilermaker senior Robbie Hummel back in the lineup, Montgomery’s NBA crack may not have been far off.
Hummel scored 21 points in 20 minutes after missing last season with a torn ACL. He shot 5 of 7 behind the three-point arc. With his team making 14 of 28 threes, that stood out less in context.
“Everybody on the team started hitting threes, including their coach [Matt Painter],” Christian said. “They were hitting threes, even if we were playing great defense, they were knocking them down. So there was nothing we could do about that at that point.”
There was little NIU could do about anything.
True, throwing a lineup that includes eight freshmen and nine newcomers onto the court at Purdue was hardly fair. Inexperience might cost NIU its fair share of games this season. This wasn’t one of them.
Montgomery had realistic expectations entering his first game.
“I just wanted to make sure we scored,” Montgomery said, telling more jokes. “Last game, you take the Carthage game, and it took us about seven minutes to score.”
Then Montgomery turned serious.
“I thought our guys didn’t have as many jitters [tonight]. I don’t think I was nervous before the game, I was more excited,” he said. “I just wanted our guys to play well. I was just thankful, when I was sitting on the sideline, that I was leading a Division I ball club. I just want to see this team grow.
“It reminds me of my early days at Central [Michigan] where we didn’t win many ball games the first couple years, but in Year 3 when we won the [Mid-American Conference] championship it was very enjoyable. It’s going to be enjoyable to watch this young team grow and get better.”