DeKALB – Poor free-throwing shooting continued to haunt the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team in a 60-55 loss to James Madison on Friday at the Convocation Center.
NIU (0-2), which missed 13 free throws in its season-opening loss to Nebraska-Omaha, shot only 14 of 26 from the free-throw line against the Dukes, including a couple of key free throws down the stretch.
NIU got off to a quick 5-2 lead on a 3-pointer by Travon Baker after corralling a loose ball and Aksel Bolin got a putback layup, but that would be the last time NIU would lead in the contest.
“I thought our guys fought back in the second half. We just couldn’t get over the hump with a shot to take the lead,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “Unfortunately today the achilles hill was the free-throw line again.”
But the young Duke squad used a 3-2 matchup zone that frustrated the Huskies offensively for much of the game. The Huskies shot only 31 percent from the field. After converting on 2 of its first 4 3-pointers, NIU finished only 5 of 28 from beyond the arc.
“We came out in a 3-2 [zone],” James Madison guard Charles Cooke said. “We knew that percentage-wise they weren’t that good shooting from the outside. We tried to make them take difficult shots and I thought we did a good job of that tonight.”
James Madison (1-1) won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last season and made the NCAA tournament, but graduated four starters from last year as is now one of the youngest teams in the country, a position NIU was in much of last year. Andre Nation, the fifth starter on that group, sat out while serving a suspension for the first half of the season.
NIU managed to get within 28-21 late in the first half as Dontel Highsmith drove baseline for a layup, plus the foul, but the Dukes extended it back to a 10-point lead at the half.
NIU came out of the intermission with good defensive intensity and it translated to offense on the other end early in the second half. A James Madison turnover turned into a layup from Baker on the other end and a Highsmith steal and layup cut the Dukes’ lead to four. A corner three from Aaron Armstead made it, 37-35.
For the game, NIU forced 15 James Madison turnovers.
After James Madison again pushed the lead back to eight, Armstead drove baseline for a reverse layup, plus the foul, and a layup from Highsmith off the feed from Bolin made it 51-49.
The Huskies would cut it to two numerous times late in the second half, including a Bolin putback with 1:25 remaining. NIU appeared to get a needed stop on the next possession, but the offensive rebound came to Andrey Semenov for the easy layup and a four-point cushion.
NIU plays San Jose State, which fell to Milwaukee, 64-61 in the opening game of the NIU Invitational, at 8 p.m. today.