DeKALB – Legendary former Huskies are taking notice of the Northern Illinois women's basketball team.
The Huskies stayed in first place in the Mid-American Conference with a 67-62 win over Western Michigan in front of nearly 40 former players as part of a celebration on Saturday. Interest in the program has been renewed, they said, as the high-scoring Huskies are averaging 88 points per game and are off to their best start in a decade.
"You see how many points they score? I don't care what level basketball it is, you have to respect that," said E.C. Hill, who became the last Huskie to be named an All-American when she earned the honor in 1993-94. "They're highly skilled. I think maybe we made them a little nervous, but they got the W. When you're scoring 100 points and people are scoring 30 points, they make you watch them.
"No disrespect to the other coaches, but everybody likes offense. Everybody likes seeing you put the ball in the basket. That's part of it. When they score 100 points and they're first in the MAC, you got to go. You want them to knock our banners down."
It has been more than two decades since the Huskies women's basketball program made the NCAA Tournament. Hill, who played in the WNBA after her time at NIU and is currently a high school coach in Florida, was named to the Northern Illinois University Hall of Fame in 2004 and played on three of those NCAA Tournament teams.
Her former teammate, Jenny Sullivan, is now a nurse in the Aurora area and has been back to three games this season – including Saturday's game full of pomp and circumstance.
"I am emotionally invested, I'm not kidding," said Sullivan, who played from 1991-95 and brought a plastic baggie full of photographs with her on Saturday. "They're awesome. Their up-tempo game reminds me of our years when I was there. It reminds me of how we would play and it's so exciting and scoring 90-100 points, I love it. I love watching them play."
In just her second year as the head coach, Lisa Carlsen not only has secured the Huskies' first winning season since 2006-07, but has the players and fans – and alums – eyeing a potential trip to the NCAA Tournament. If there's anybody that understands the excitement of playing a high-scoring style of basketball and the difficulty of turning around a program, it's Carol Owens.
Owens, an NIU Hall of Famer who was a star player for the NCAA Tournament-bound 1989-90 team that scored 94.5 points per game, took over as head coach for the Huskies in 2005-06 – a year after they went 7-21.
In just her second season, the Huskies went 19-12 and it's the last time they've had a winning record.
"It is extremely hard and I'm sure she's coached a lot of different teams and knew what style fit this team," said Owens, who went 66-81 in five seasons at NIU and is now an assistant coach at Notre Dame. "I just like that (this season's team) can score. It reminds me of when we played. We averaged 90-some points per game. They do it here.
"I think they play so well together and so unselfishly and that kind of reminds me of the teams that we had. Nobody cared who the leading scorer was this game or that game, they shared the ball and wanted to win."
Carlsen said after the win over Western Michigan that she wasn't thinking about all the impressive alums watching her Huskies while the game was going on, but joked that "you definitely don't want to go out on the floor and walk off and fake like you're happy."
There were no fake smiles after the game on Saturday. No, the excitement surrounding the Huskies' program is very real.
"I feel like this year I want to be here for these games," Sullivan said. "I want to be here to cheer them on. I feel like they really have a shot to go to the NCAA tournament and I want to be a part of it. I miss being a part of women's basketball at Northern.
"It feels good to be home."
• Jesse Severson is the NIU beat writer for the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com.