DeKALB – With the game on the line, the Northern Illinois men's basketball team went to the line repeatedly on Saturday against San Jose State, normally a fruitful scenario for the opposition.
The Huskies made just 54 percent of their free throws in their first two games of the season, both close losses, and despite improved shooting throughout the game, Aksel Bolin and Daveon Balls had each recently missed the front end of a one-and-one.
But on this day, the Huskies knocked down five of six free throws in the final 16 seconds – two from Travon Baker, one from Darrell Bowie, and two from Aaron Armstead which led NIU to a 60-59 win over the Spartans.
“[Missing free throws is] like a domino effect,” Balls said. “But we found a way to make free throws … It's really great for our confidence going into next game, going in with a win.”
Certain flaws weren't so easy to fix. The Huskies still made just 3-of-15 three-pointers, and shot just 34.5 percent from the field.
But poor outside shooting didn't matter quite as much on Saturday, because 6-foot-10 center Jordan Threloff repeatedly found strong position in the post down the stretch and knocked down inside shots on his way to a career-high 17 points.
“It's a great thing [hitting a few shots in a row] because I have more confidence in my shot and my teammates are confident getting me the ball,” Threloff said. “It's huge for myself and the team. We started off a little slow and couldn't get a couple of games. Now we won a close one.”
After Balls scored seven of his career-high 15 points during a nine-minute span midway through the second half, San Jose State (0-3) took a 43-42 lead on a three-pointer with 7:34 remaining.
But the Huskies (1-2) found Threloff in the post time-after-time, and the former DeKalb star scored eight of the next 10 points for NIU, punctuated by a dunk that made the score 53-49 with 3:31 remaining.
“Our guys got the memo to have patience and get the ball inside,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. “Maybe our team isn't used to it because we didn't have those big guys last year. We're a new team, we're still getting used to each other. But definitely there has to be a player's trust, a coach's trust. And today we took a big step, where the guards trusted the bigs and then they delivered. We like the result so hopefully we can keep this recipe.
After that point, all NIU needed to do was hit free throws down the stretch, usually not such a simple task.
After losing 11 straight dating back to last season, the Huskies won their first game since Jan. 30, 2013.
“I told the guys that I was getting a little worried, because dating back to last year, you had some close games at the end, and then our first two games, unfortunately we didn't finish,” Montgomery said. “But it feels good. You want to be in the winners circle.”