DeKALB – The post-Marshawn Wilson era started on a sour note.
Hours after the Northern Illinois men's basketball team announced it had parted ways with the sophomore guard, the Huskies blew an 8-point lead in the final four minutes of regulation against Ball State and lost, 81-72, in overtime on Tuesday night at the NIU Convocation Center.
The news about the departure of Wilson, a 6-foot-3 guard from Oakdale, Minnesota, was far from stunning, however. He had missed two games early in the season due to suspension, two more toward the start of Mid-American Conference play and hadn't played in the last three games leading up to the contest against Ball State.
"You try to wipe the slate clean and go day-by-day," Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery said in a press conference after the loss to Ball State. "It's just he needs a fresh start and that's what we're going to give him."
Northern Illinois sports information director Donna Turner abruptly ended the press conference before any follow-up questions could be asked.
There was no official reason given for the relationship's break-up, other than that it was "mutually decided" for the two sides to part ways.
"We met, a mutual agreement between him, he's going to have a fresh start at another school, we're going to give him a release and we want nothing but the best for him," Montgomery said.
Wilson, who was a touted recruit out of Hill-Murray Hill School in Minnesota and a teammate of current Huskies Jaylen Key and Levi Bradley on a Milwaukee-based travel team before coming to NIU, burst onto the scene as a freshman – averaging 11.0 points per game, which was tied for second-best on the team, and he shot 41.3 percent from the 3-point line.
However, he saw his minutes dwindle as a sophomore.
This season, he played at least 21 minutes in just three games and hadn't played that much since scoring a season-high 19 points in 21 minutes on Dec. 11 at Minnesota. He played 22 minutes in the games against Roosevelt and Idaho, which were the second and third games of the season, respectively.
That was in sharp contrast to his freshman season, in which he played at least 21 minutes in 10 contests – including a season-high 36 at Eastern Michigan, a game that he scored a career-best 26 points – and was named to the MAC All-Freshman Team.
The turmoil comes at a tough time for the Huskies, who have lost three consecutive contests and six of their last eight and have five games left on the regular season schedule.
The loss to the Cardinals (16-10 overall, 7-6 in MAC West) came after the Huskies went ahead 61-53 on a pair of free throws by Bradley with 4:10 left in regulation. Following Bradley's free throws, Northern Illinois went 0 for 4 from the field, 0 for 1 from the foul line and committed two turnovers heading into overtime.
Ball State scored the final eight points of regulation and the first 11 of overtime as part of a 19-0 run to give the Huskies their sixth home loss of the season after going 18-1 at the NIU Convocation Center during the 2015-16 campaign.
"Unfortunately, we didn't close out the game with under four minutes to go," Montgomery said. "Missed free throw, missed dunk, missed layup, turnover and then another two turnovers ultimately cost us the game."
The last four minutes of the game have been a struggle for the Huskies this season. During their 13 conference games so far, they are shooting 22 for 68 (32.4 percent) from the field, 39 for 59 (66.1 percent) from the foul line and have committed 20 turnovers in the last four minutes of the contests.
Those numbers are below the Huskies' season averages of 43.3 field goal percentage and 68 percent from the foul line.
The late turnovers have plagued the Huskies more-so at home. They have committed 16 of their 20 crunch-time turnovers in the seven conference home games.
Against Ball State, they committed costly turnovers in the final 1:44. With the Huskies leading 61-56, a miscue by Bradley resulted in a layup by Ball State's Franko House. A minute later, freshman guard Eugene German committed a turnover that the Cardinals turned into Ryan Weber's game-tying 3-pointer with 14 seconds left.
"Every game is different, can only comment on this one – our late mistakes cost us," Montgomery said.
Regardless, the Huskies are amazingly only a game behind Ball State for first place in the MAC West standings and a top four seed – and a first-round bye – in the MAC Tournament because of the mashed up West standings. Currently, the Huskies are one of four teams sitting at 6-7 in the MAC West, with Eastern Michigan in last place at 5-8.
The Huskies close out the regular season making the rounds in the MAC West one more time, playing each team in the five games remaining – hosting Toledo on Saturday and Western Michigan and playing at Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Ball State.