DeKALB – It was difficult for Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery to evaluate whether the NIU men’s basketball team took a step forward or a leap back on Sunday in a 72-54 win over Judson University, an NAIA school.
On one hand, the Huskies (1-2) won their first game of the season with seven freshmen making up a bulk of the rotation.
Judson (2-7), on the other hand, trailed by just three with eight minutes remaining after playing the night before. Montgomery shook his head when asked what direction he thought his team went in Sunday’s win.
“We’re taking so many steps, we don’t know which way it’s coming or going,” Montgomery said with a chuckle.
An already-young Huskies squad was short-handed on Sunday. After Keith Gray injured his ankle 10 minutes into the game, three of the Huskies’ four key returners from last season were out due to injury or suspension.
That inexperience showed early, when Judson took a 20-12 lead nine minutes into the game after making five three-pointers.
“I think we came out and took them lightly, and they came out and played hard,” freshman Akeem Springs said. “You can tell that they’ve been anticipating this game. They came out and played hard, they hit shots, and once one person hits a shot, it’s contagious.”
Even after the Huskies went on a 17-2 run to go up by seven, they simply couldn’t put Judson away. The Eagles shot 12-of-31 from three-point range, and the score was 55-52 with eight minutes remaining.
The Huskies put together another 17-2 run to close out the game, but Montgomery knows his team’s consistency has to improve.
“I try to tell myself every day, every afternoon, every night that we have to have patience,” Montgomery said. “When you have a young team, competing is like a roller-coaster, up-and-down … Judson made some plays, and sometimes for a young team, you’ve got to get punched in the mouth to wake up.”
Last year, it took NIU 12 games to notch its first win. While Sunday’s win wasn’t necessarily convincing, Springs is happy to have a victory under his belt.
“I’m happy with this, because it’s like, ‘Okay, we’ve had to go through adversity and we overcame it,’” Springs said. “In past situations, we’ve had adversity, and we took a loss. It’s good for us to come and get a win so we can start to get a winning mentality back for our team.”
Montgomery did take positives out of Sunday’s performance, including 16-point performances from freshman Sam Mader and Springs, along with his team’s strong defensive play down the stretch.
But he doesn’t want his team to get too high with games against Loyola and Illinois-Chicago coming in the next nine days.
“It is their first college win, but I’ll tell you, the rest of the road is going to get difficult,” Montgomery said. “Loyola’s coming here on Saturday, a very good ball club, and then we have UIC. They can pat themselves on the back, but I wouldn’t.”