DeKALB – The look was astonishment mixed with a bit of curiosity. NIU’s best, pure post player, freshman Keith Gray, had just picked up his fifth foul on a regrettable decision – a charge near the basket with 4:15 left.
The Huskies were down three points to Milwaukee at the time, and they had momentum. They just needed to finish. But with Gray walking toward NIU’s bench, that task became much more difficult.
NIU never fully went away down the stretch. Without its best full-time, low-post player, it didn’t have enough to get over the hump, either.
“I think it’s a learning experience,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “They’re in the college game now. Charges are called a lot more frequently. You have to pull up.
“You don’t have to get closer to the basket. If you have an open shot, knock it down. But it’s a learning experience with a young team. And the more film they watch, the more game experience they get, those things won’t happen as much.”
Montgomery didn’t stomp and shout, or point fingers and get in Gray’s face with a lecture. He just flashed the look, then pulled the freshman under his arm on the sideline and offered an explanation.
It’s early in a season filled with players still early in their college careers. For Montgomery and his counterpart, NIU women’s basketball coach Kathi Bennett, this time is not to be consumed with anger. It’s a period of learning experiences, teaching tools that will pay off in the future.
Montgomery and Bennett’s next chances will come Sunday, when the Huskie men’s team hosts Eastern Illinois at 1 p.m. at the Convocation Center, just before the NIU women host Temple at 3:30.
A game after dropping its opener by 31 points at Loyola, the NIU women’s team used two overtimes to get its first win of the season Wednesday against Western Illinois.
“For freshmen and sophomores that haven’t played a lot, game experience is everything,” Bennett said. “They got a chance to get that.
“But that’s already behind us, and my first question to them [at practice] was, ‘Are you still hungry?’ And I think it gave them a little bit of confidence. We have a lot of work to do to be where we want to be. One game is not going to cut it.”
The same could be said about Montgomery’s team. After showing promise against Milwaukee, the Huskies lost by 33 points Thursday at Iowa. It’s part of an early-season stretch Montgomery said his team simply needed to “survive” the first day he saw the schedule.
Learning is important, too.