Huskies deflect Rocket attack

By Jim Wozniak

Unable to understand his team’s defense, NIU Coach Jim Rosborough followed the defensive yellow brick road, picked up some new starters and traveled to the land of his 70-point goal.

After nine straight games of giving up more than 70 points, the NIU men’s basketball team might have found a defensive heart in grounding the Toledo Rockets 72-69.

A crowd of 1,740, reducing the Chick Evans Field House to more of a church service, saw NIU beat Toledo there for the fifth straight time. NIU’s record jumped to 6-12, while the Rockets’ fell to 8-9.

“I’m really happy for our kids,” said Rosborough. “Any wins for our group help our kids’ confidence. It was a very good ball game for us.”

“The thing we didn’t do was get the big defensive and offensive play when we needed it,” said Toledo Coach Bob Nichols. “Northern Illinois played well, had a good game plan and executed well.”

Dominance of the offensive and especially the defensive boards was the big key for NIU in charging to a 39-31 lead at halftime. The Huskies also stuffed some of the Rockets’ shots down low back into their faces. Along the path, NIU held Toledo center Blake Burnham to six points. NIU could not prevent Rocket guard Dan Lehman from pouring in 11 points, nine from three-point range.

“We didn’t do a very good job getting inside, and they beat us to the ball,” said Nichols about why his team was weak on the boards. “Going into the game, our main concern was defensive rebounding, but we did not do that well.”

Offensively, NIU switched off being hot and cold from the field in the opening 20 minutes. NIU guard Rodney Davis scored from the outside and by penetration to pile up 14 points in the half. But the Huskies, like Toledo, had problems holding onto the ball. NIU committed nine turnovers, while Toledo had seven miscues.

“Sometimes in the transition we had a lot of turnovers,” said Davis. “We just had those mental lapses.”

Toledo’s boardwork improved in the second half, as the Rockets out-rebounded NIU 19-18. Perhaps Nichols enlisted the help of the Wicked Witch to bring NIU center Mike Grabner a late-night art assignment Tuesday that would slow him down to two second-half rebounds.

“At halftime, we did emphasize defensive rebounding,” said Nichols.

NIU started the second half with the first two baskets to build up a 12-point lead. But NIU’s shooting soon went frigid, and Burnham began to take the ball to the hoop with success. When he did not hit with his left-handed jumper, he went to the line. Matt Hardy, one of Rosborough’s new starters, picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the half. Scott Sullivan fouled out a little later after playing only three minutes.

Burnham hit nine of 10 from the line, the only miss being a potential game-tier. Eventually, Toledo caught up to NIU and for a brief time took the lead.

“I was proud of the fact that the team battled back from being down by at least 10 points,” said Nichols.

So far this season, the Rockets have had trouble in the last five minutes. Last night, NIU led by three around that time and kept Toledo on the launch pad the rest of the way.

“I think later in the game, they became a little fatigued, and we ran the ball on them,” said NIU guard Randy Norman, who was replaced in the starting lineup by Kendall Jones. Norman sent home 13 points.

“I think we sucked it up at the end,” said Davis, who led NIU with 20 points. “We said we had to pull this one out.”

Burnham finished with 21 points to lead Toledo, while Lehman was next with 17. NIU had five people in double figures for the fourth straight game.