DeKALB – The Northern Illinois men's basketball team could finally relax once sophomore Levi Bradley made his first free throw.
After the Huskies' 17-point lead dwindled to three in the final seconds, Bradley's free throw was just enough to put the game out of reach in NIU's 87-83 win over Central Michigan on Saturday night at the NIU Convocation Center.
"For 35 minutes of the game, we probably couldn't play much better," NIU coach Mark Montgomery said. "We were moving the ball, we were scoring inside, we were scoring in transition, our defense was pretty solid. You know, you just have to finish the game."
The Huskies (9-6, 1-1 MAC West) held a double-digit lead for a large portion of the game, including a 54-37 advantage midway through the second half after a pair of free throws by freshman guard Eugene German.
They also led 80-70 after a free throw by sophomore guard Laytwan Porter with 1:42 remaining, before the Chippewas (10-5, 0-2) went on a 13-6 run – capped by a 3-pointer by Braylon Rayson to make it 86-83 with five seconds left.
Rayson's 3-pointer came after the Chippewas grabbed three offensive rebounds on the possession.
"Man, it was nerve-wracking, I think we got rattled for a second," said NIU senior guard Dontel Highsmith, who had 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting. "I like how we bounced back and stayed poise at the end of the day and came out with the win."
After struggling to get the ball inbounds following Rayson's 3-pointer – the Huskies' pass was deflected out of bounds two separate times – Bradley got the ball and was fouled with 0.9 left and sank the first of his two free throws to seal the win.
"Against (Central Michigan's) press, our guards weren't getting open," Montgomery said. "The guy that was taking the ball out of bounds has to have a little more poise. ... You have to sprint to get the ball and you just can't relax. Our guys have a tendency to think that when you have a lead the game is over. The other team is going to keep playing."
NIU sophomore post Jaylen Key recorded a double-double for the Huskies, finishing with 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting and had 11 rebounds. He was one of four players in double figures for the Huskies, along with Highsmith, senior post Marin Maric (17 points, nine rebounds) and Porter (16 points, five rebounds, four assists.)
Porter, who is working his way back after a three-game suspension earlier this season, played 23 minutes – his most since playing 23 at Indiana State on Nov. 30.
Rayson scored a game-high 29 points on 6-for-18 shooting (13 for 17 from the free-throw line) and David DiLeo hit five 3-pointers and finished with 22 points for the Chippewas.
Central Michigan guard Marcus Keene, who came into the game averaging 30.1 points a game, was held to 14 points on 4-for-11 shooting and committed six turnovers in 34 minutes.
"Keene, we were just picking him up at the NBA arc," Montgomery said. "We tried to blitz a couple of ball screens. ... He didn't have it going and he was sharing the ball. We were trying to stay a little closer, double him a little bit with our fours and fives and make him shoot it over us, and thank God he didn't get it going."
EXTRA PASSES: NIU sophomore guard Marshawn Wilson did not play on Saturday, with Montgomery calling it a "coach's decision." ... The Huskies are now 7-2 at home. ... NIU led 35-28 at halftime despite shooting 12 for 42 (28.6 percent) from the floor because they had a 17-1 advantage in offensive rebounds. ... The Huskies finished with a season-high 23 offensive rebounds and had 20 second-chance points.
UP NEXT: at Kent State, 6 p.m. Tuesday