Loyola next ‘challenge’ for NIU

By Wes Swietek

Coaches like to say that every game for their team is a challenge.

But when NIU men’s basketball coach Brian Hammel says it, he’s not just spouting another coaching cliche.

Those who have followed the Huskies know their litany of misfortune: academic ineligibility, suspensions and injuries that have left Hammel with nine players, several of them battling nagging injuries.

Monday night’s game at Eastern Illinois promised to be a stiff test for NIU. The Huskies passed with flying colors, earning a gutsy 76-67 win. The next exam comes tonight (7:30) against Loyola-Chicago at the Rosemont Horizon.

Monday’s win over Eastern was largely earned because of NIU’s 61 percent shooting percentage. “A lot of that depends on shot selection and staying mentally alert,” Hammel said. “When you take bad shots, your percentage goes down. We’ve had good shots in other games and just didn’t make them.”

The Huskies’ record stands at 6-11, with a respectable 4-4 mark in the Mid-Continent Conference. But Hammel said he evaluated his team based on performances rather than on records.

“We’re never satisfied. We want to go out and play the perfect game. (Now) we have to make sure we’re getting better and improving, especially since we’re depleted,” Hammel said.

Wednesday’s non-conference opponent has dropped three of its last four games to drop to 9-6. Loyola is led by swingman Keir Rogers who is averaging 20 points per game.

“They’re very fundamentally sound,” Hammel said of the Ramblers. “(Rogers) is a real difficult match-up for us. They play real good defense and then look for Rogers on offense.”

And it’s a less-than-healthy group of Huskies who’ll be looking to stop Rogers and Co. tonight.

Brian Molis continues to be hampered by a badly sprained ankle. Center Steve Oldendorf is also hobbled by a bad ankle and Randy Fens is questionable for the Loyola game with an infected elbow.

The emergence of Oldendorf, who had 11 points and eight rebounds against Eastern after a 16-point, 16-rebound effort against Western Illinois, has been a pleasant surprise for Hammel. “He’s going to be a heck of a player if he believes in himself,” Hammel said. “He’s really starting to come along.”

Tonight’s game also marks the third road game in five nights for NIU.

“This whole stretch has been a killer for us,” Hammel said. “But that’s where mental discipline comes in. We need everyone working together.”