DeKALB – Northern Illinois basketball coach Mark Montgomery told his players they were playing selfish.
It was halftime of Saturday's 64-59 loss to Massachusetts, and the Huskies were coming off of one of their worst five-minute stretches of the season, turning the ball over four consecutive times before Akeem Springs sank two free throws to make the score 36-21 at the break. The Huskies were 6-for-25 in the half, missing all seven of their three-point attempts, and none of leading-scorer Abdel Nader's shots found the bottom of the net.
“We were not sprinting back in transition defense,” Montgomery said. “We weren't sharing the ball. On offense, we had no ball movement, we had no flow. It wasn't one player, it was a combination of the whole team. Either we can lose by 30 or we can rectify it and see what happens. I don't know if I said it that calm.”
The Huskies (2-10) responded.
Five different players scored in the first nine minutes of the half, and the Huskies cut the UMass (8-3) lead to seven.
“It was definitely a relief to come out there and see that we got back in the game,” said Aksel Bolin, who scored 11 points. “We were a little bit frustrated with having so many turnovers. That was all our fault. I enjoyed how we talked about it in the locker room, and we came out more aggressive as a team in the second half.”
Still, Nader was having an off night. The sophomore, who averaged 15 points in his first four games of the season after returning from suspension, was 1-for-9 from the field with less than six minutes left, and the Huskies were down, 53-45.
But Nader said he never lost confidence.
“One thing that [Montgomery] tells me to do is to just stay aggressive and to never lose my confidence,” Nader said. “That's one thing I'm trying to do no matter how I'm playing.”
With 5:10 remaining, Nader made a layup. Thirty seconds later, he sank a three-pointer to cut the UMass lead to five. With the Huskies down five with just under a minute remaining, Nader made a three to make the score 61-59.
After the teams traded misses and the Minutemen turned the ball over, Nader had the ball in his hands with less than 20 seconds on the clock.
But Nader lost control of his dribble, and the Huskies were forced to foul. Nader finished with 15 points, but the Huskies lost their fifth in a row.
“[Nader] was a little out of kilter, but he does have to stay aggressive,” Montgomery said. “He responded.”
For the fourth time in five losses, the Huskies were close.
When his team tips off Mid-American Conference play against Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 9, close won't be good enough for Montgomery.
“We're getting closer,” Montgomery said. “You know, we made a huge step. With four minutes to go, I'm looking at it, and we're down three, it's a one-possession game. You get some multiple stops and scores, you win the game … Stay as a team, share the ball, trust our teammates, keep defending and rebounding, and we're going to win some games.”