Wells’ tip-in lifts Huskies past UIC

By Wes Swietek

NIU not only beat the University of Illinois-Chicago 51-50 on a last-second Andrew Wells tip-in Friday night, the Huskies may have perfected a new play.

With NIU coach Jim Molinari’s squad trailing UIC 50-49 and the clock winding down, the Huskies executed the new play to perfection.

Wells out-jumped UIC’s Mike Clark to emerge from a forest of bodies underneath the NIU basket to put in a Donnell Thomas miss with 1.1 seconds left. “We were side-by-side and we both went up. I just tipped it in,” said Wells.

“Just like we diagrammed it,” said Molinari, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I said Donnell (Thomas), you miss it, then Andrew you tip it in right at the buzzer so that they can’t get a shot off.”

NIU may have learned the play from watching the films of its only home-loss this season when the Huskies lost to Northern Iowa 63-62 on a last second tip-in.

The winning basket sparked a victory celebration by the Huskies that left the Chick Evans Field House floor well polished, as Wells’ teammates descended on the 6-7 junior in an avalanche of bodies. The heart-pounding finish in front of 1,740 spectators capped a foul-plagued, defensive battle that raised the Huskies’ record to 13-9, 10-1 at home. UIC dropped to 14-9.

NIU’s defense, ranked 5th in the country at the end of last week, held the Flames to four points midway through the opening half. UIC, led by the acrobatic efforts of 6-5 forward Chris Harris, battled back to gain a 27-25 half-time lead. Harris scored twelve-straight UIC points to end the half.

“We made an adjustment in the second half (on Harris),” said Molinari. “We knew we couldn’t stay up on him so we made him take outside shots.” Harris was held to six points in the final 20 minutes, but still finished with a game-high 20.

UIC and the Huskies traded the lead throughout the second half until a three-point jumper by Corwin Hunt with 36 seconds left gave UIC a 50-49 lead. NIU called a time-out to set up the eventual winning basket.

“We wanted to get Donald (Whiteside) open for a jump shot because we knew they’d stop Donnell,” Molinari said. “That’s what we tried to do, but they did an excellent job of switching. Donald made a great play to kick it out to Donnell. That’s how these games are usually won, not on the first shot but on the second shot and this was no exception.”

“We talked all year long about not getting beat by a tip-in,” said UIC coach Bob Hallberg. “We said it 10,000 times in practice, but that’s exactly how we got beat.”

The Huskies were led by Wells’ 15 points, who also tied for the game-high rebounding total. Wells and Thomas each pulled down 12 boards to help build NIU’s 40-17 rebounding advantage. The “D-Train” finished with 14 points, including a key three-point play late in the contest that kept NIU in a position to pull out the win.

NIU’s win, in the contest dubbed the “Battle of Chicago” by Molinari, gave the Huskies’ Chicago players temporary bragging rights.

“During the game there were a lot of words being passed,” said Wells, a veteran of Chicago public-league play at Von Steuben. “It was fun playing against these guys from Chicago. We were really charged up for the game and it meant a lot to us.”

The Flames pressure defense forced NIU into an uncharacteristic 13 turnovers in the first half.

“They really took us out of everything,” said Molinari. “What we talked about at halftime was not playing tentative. If you play against UIC tentatively it’s like a wounded animal, they sense that blood and they’ll really come at you.”

“This (UIC vs. NIU) is going to be one of the great rivalries in the Midwest when we get in the conference next year,” predicts Molinari. The Huskies have a 4-3 record against their futute AMCU Conference foes.