Created:Tuesday, January 31, 2017 9:23 p.m.CDT

NIU men's basketball: Huskies squander impressive first half in loss to Akron

NIU Huskie guard Justin Thomas (5) drives to the basket against Akron forward Kwan Cheatham Jr. (2) at The NIU Convocation Center in DeKalb January 31. (Sean King for Shaw Media)

DeKALB – One of the best halves of the season turned out to be for naught for the Northern Illinois men's basketball team.

The Huskies had an early double-digit lead over first-place Akron but suffered a 76-73 loss to the Zips on Tuesday night – their third consecutive loss at the NIU Convocation Center.

Northern Illinois put on one of their best showings of the season in the first half – taking a 47-33 lead over Akron into halftime after shooting 19 for 32 (59.4 percent) from the field and 5 for 7 (71.4 percent) from the 3-point line. The Huskies (13-9 overall, 5-4 in Mid-American Conference West) led by as much as 15 in the final minute of the first half.

"That was our best opening 20 minutes," Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery said. "We were shooting the ball and getting the ball inside and getting points in transition."

Northern Illinois senior big man Marin Maric finished with a game-high 23 points – 18 of which came in the first half – and had 10 rebounds to lead the way for the Huskies in the loss. Senior guard Aaric Armstead had 11 of his 13 points in the first half and sophomore guard Laytwan Porter had 10.

Porter had a desperation 3-pointer at the final buzzer that fell short for the Huskies.

The Zips (19-3 overall, 9-0 in MAC East) outscored the Huskies, 43-26, in the second half and forced the Huskies into 12 turnovers after halftime.

"The 12 turnovers in the second half hurt and we missed free throws," Montgomery said of the Huskies, who finished with 16 turnovers. "Some of those key turnovers late, you can't get those back. We played well enough to win but fell short."

Akron guard Antino Jackson had a team-high 22 points and big man Isaiah Johnson added 21 points – the duo combined for 31 points in the second half.

The Huskies had another tough stretch in the final minutes of a loss, however.

The Zips took the lead for good on a putback by Johnson to put them ahead, 66-65, with 3:50 left in the game. The Huskies got to the line down three with 54 seconds remaining, but Maric split the pair of free throws. After Johnson missed a shot near the basket on the Zips' following possession, Maric grabbed a rebound but his outlet pass was stolen by Jackson, who made both free throws to put Akron ahead, 72-68.

Northern Illinois freshman guard Justin Thomas answered with a layup and was fouled, but missed the free throw with 18 seconds remaining. Akron bumped the lead up with a pair of free throws by Noah Robotham to make it, 74-70 with 15 seconds left.

Northern Illinois sophomore forward Levi Bradley made things interesting by connecting on a tough 3-pointer to cut it to 74-73 with four seconds left, but Jackson made two more free throws and Porter's last-second three was off.

"You can't miss two free throws in the final minute in a 1-point, 1-possession game," Montgomery said.

By the numbers: Armstead made his first three 3-pointers of the game to continue to bust out of his offensive slump. At one point, he had missed 14 consecutive 3-pointers but made both of his attempts in the win at Toledo before bumping up that streak to five with his three deep balls against Akron. He finished the game against the Zips shooting 5 for 7 from the field and 3 for 4 from beyond the arc.

Beyond the stats: Akron kept its undefeated conference record alive, but the Zips have certainly been in some tight games. Of their nine conference wins, five have come by five points or less.

They said it: "We just didn't have that energy in the second half," Montgomery said.

Up next: The Huskies host Eastern Michigan at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and the Zips play at Ohio on Saturday.

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