Huskies clinch MAC tournament berth in win over Central Michigan


Alyssa Queen

Senior guard Kaleb Thornton (3) tries to defend a shot from Broncos senior guard Lamar Norman Jr. during the Huskies’ matchup against the Western Michigan Broncos on Feb. 11 at the NIU Convocation Center. (Alyssa Queen | Northern Star)

By Ethan Gonzales and Zachary Bertram


DeKALB A hot shooting first half propelled the Huskies to an 84-80 win over Central Michigan University. The Huskies shot 69% from the field in the first half to help punch their ticket to the Mid-American Conference tournament in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Huskies clinched their spot in the MAC tournament despite missing sophomore guard David Coit for the past three games and junior guard Keshawn Williams for the majority of the season. Coit and Williams were the Huskies’ leading scorers before each of their injuries occurred, averaging 15.9 and 17.9 points per game respectively.

“What we had to go through to get to Cleveland with losing Keshawn Williams, Diggy (David) Coit has been out for the last three games, Xavier Amos, Zion Russell,” NIU men’s basketball head coach Rashon Burno said. “It’s a testament to the talent, it’s a testament to our fortitude, a testament to our mindset of having one objective, which was to get to Cleveland and give ourselves an opportunity to cut down the nets.”

NIU snapped its three-game losing streak Saturday, as they swept the season series against the Chippewas. 

Saturday’s game was a physical contest with 56 combined fouls and 76 combined free throws attempted. Senior guards Darweshi Hunter and Kaleb Thornton fouled out for NIU, while freshman guard Amani Drummond and freshman forward Ola Ajiboye fouled out for Central Michigan. 

The Huskies earned their first win since Coit injured his hamstring on Feb. 14 against Ball State University. Thornton and sophomore guard Zarique Nutter stepped up in Coit’s absence, scoring 21 points each. 

Thornton contributed four rebounds and five assists to go along with his 21 points, while Nutter hauled in seven rebounds for the Huskies.

Central Michigan freshman guard Reggie Bass was unstoppable, scoring a career-high 40 points on 8-for-20 shooting while nursing an ankle injury. Bass did the majority of his damage at the free-throw line, shooting 21-for-24 from the stripe. 


NIU used an efficient first half to race out to a 47-29 halftime lead. The Huskies shot 16-for-23 from the field and knocked down six of their ten three-point attempts.

“When we didn’t turn it (over), we got quality shots,” Burno said. “We shot in the first half 69%, we shot 60% from three. So if you limit turnovers, and you run your offense crisply, you can get easy shots. So that was the number one thing, when we get in harm’s way – and it’s been our Achilles’ heel all year – when we turn it (over) it really hurts you because now you’re in transition versus making a team have to go versus our half-court defense.”

The Huskies played stifling defense in the first half, holding Central Michigan to 39.3% shooting from the field and 25% shooting from three-point range. NIU also forced seven Chippewa turnovers in the first half. 

Thornton led the Huskies in scoring at the break with 13 points, including shooting 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. Thornton dished out four first-half assists to go along with his 13 points. 

Sophomore center Markus Harding led the way in the first half for Central Michigan with eight points and four rebounds at the break.


The Chippewas used an 18-4 run in the second half to cut the Huskies’ lead down to 60-56 with 10:14 left to play. Senior forward Harvin Ibarguen finally stopped the bleeding with a layup at the 8:21 mark. Ibarguen’s layup helped the Huskies put together an 8-0 run to regain control of the game. 

Bass took over in the second half, scoring 33 of his 40 points in the final 20 minutes. His scoring display was the catalyst for the Chippewas’ run.

Central Michigan’s efficiency at the line was key in getting back into the game, as NIU went just 16-for-27 at the free throw line in the second half.

Central Michigan converted 13 of its 14 free throws over the final five minutes, cutting NIU’s lead back down to five. The game would not get any closer from there, with two free throws from Crump and a layup from Nutter extending the Huskies’ lead to 80-71 with a minute left to play.

The Chippewas were ready to do whatever they needed to do to get a win Saturday and sneak into the top eight of the MAC standings, Burno expressed.

“They’re in the same boat we were in,” Burno said. “They want to get to Cleveland, they needed this win just as much as we did. If you look down the scouting report about them, (Central Michigan) it said desperate. Who’s going to be the more desperate team? But I’m ecstatic, this was a goal.”


The Huskies have two games remaining in the 2022-2023 season at home. NIU will host University at Buffalo Tuesday and Eastern Michigan University Friday. The Huskies look to finish strong and potentially overtake Ohio University for fifth place in the MAC standings.

NIU will face Buffalo at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Convocation Center in DeKalb. Live stats will be available via SidearmStats. The game will be broadcasted via radio on The Varsity Network.

“I’m happy for the seniors to finally get to Cleveland and get an opportunity to get to the big dance,” Burno said. “I’ve been there as a player and a coach, there’s nothing like it.”