After advancing in the Mid-American Conference tournament for the first time in almost a decade, the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team looked poised to make an even bigger surprise Wednesday night.
Ultimately, the Huskies ran out of steam.
NIU lost to Western Michigan, 71-54, to end its season a game after most around the MAC expected. The Broncos advance to the tournament quarterfinals.
“It was an incredible first half by us, but I thought Western Michigan wore us down in the second half,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “We needed our perimeter shots to fall and unfortunately they just didn’t go in, but I liked the energy and effort of my guys, especially for the first 25 minutes of the ballgame.”
NIU (5-26, 3-13) entered halftime down 31-28 after junior Tony Nixon made a corner three-pointer at the buzzer. But the No. 12-seeded Huskies, who made 10 of 20 shots in the first half, shot only 8 of 27 (29.6 percent) from the field in the second. Meanwhile, No. 8 Western Michigan (14-19, 6-10) improved from 34.5 percent shooting in the first half to 58.3 percent in the second.
NIU sophomore Antone Christian hit a three to pull NIU within 39-37 with 16:24 left. The Broncos responded with a 19-4 run.
Against one of the MAC’s lowest-scoring teams – NIU’s 55.4 points per game in the regular season ranked 11th of 12 teams – Western Michigan’s run effectively put the game out of reach.
“Western is a very veteran team, very basketball savvy,” Christian said. “They played like they had been here before. They never rattled when they were down. They played like veterans play, and you have to give them a lot of credit.”
Nixon led all NIU scorers with 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting. Christian finished with 10 points, and freshman Marquavese Ford had eight points and six assists.
Three Western Michigan players scored in double digits, led by Mike Douglas’ 19 points. Douglas also had seven assists and five rebounds.
NIU finished the season ranked last in the MAC. But the Huskies beat No. 5 Eastern Michigan on Monday night, their first MAC tournament win since 2003.
On Wednesday, Nixon already was thinking about returning to Cleveland next year.
“It means a lot to this program,” Nixon said. “We hadn’t won a first-round game since 2003, and we took a step in the right direction when we beat Eastern Michigan. We know what it feels like now, and we look forward to getting back here next year.”