Men’s basketball takes convincing win in round one of MAC Tournament

James Krause

DeKALB — The men’s basketball team kept their dream of winning the Mid-American Conference title alive with a first round win Monday night 80-61 against the Ohio Bobcats.

The seventh-seeded Huskies led from their opening basket from sophomore guard Rod Henry-Hayes all the way to the final whistle.

Head Coach Mark Montgomery said the team was focused early, and it showed in their performance.

“Our guys were locked in right away,” Montgomery said. “The focus level, the energy, our guys came ready to play tonight.”

The Huskies now ride a 5-1 record over a six game stretch into the quarterfinals round of the tournament, sitting two wins away from a MAC title opportunity.

Montgomery said the difference he’s seen in the Huskies over the last few games comes down their ability to close out opponents that helped them secure a home win and move on to the quarterfinals round.

“We’ve been in a lot of games where it’s decided in the last four or five minutes,” Montgomery said. “We took care of the basketball, valued time of possession [and] got stops at the end of the game. I just think over our last five games, you could tell our guys still had a lot of fight in them.”

Shot selection was ultimately what did in the tenth-seeded Bobcats. NIU out-shot Ohio 56 percent to 38 percent, including the Bobcats going 2-for-18 from three-point territory.

NIU’s frontcourt handled the majority of their scoring with junior guard Eugene German leading the Huskies with 23 points and senior guard Dante Thorpe finishing with 18.

Related: Basketball wins regular season finale to claim seventh seed in MAC Tournament

The scoring output from German made him the eighth player in school history to reach 1,500 career points, sitting just two points away from tying Matt Hicks for seventh all-time.

German said the team was not going to go down on their homecourt in DeKalb with their eyes set on Cleveland for the next round.

“We said we were going to Cleveland and that [losing] wasn’t going to happen in our house,” German said. “We weren’t going to lose on our floor for our seniors. We’re very confident right now, our confidence is through the roof right now.”

Senior forward Levi Bradley finished the game with eight points, five rebounds and five assists in his final home game for NIU. Bradley, who played in his 130th game for the Huskies, said there were a lot of memories made at the Convocation Center.

“It’s been a great run here,” Bradley said. “Lot of memories here, some good, some bad, but the life lessons I’ve learned here; I think that’s a good thing to take away.  

Senior forward Lacey James got the ball rolling for NIU with seven of the first ten Huskie points, giving them a 10-5 lead at the first media timeout.

German’s shooting in the first half helped the Huskies hold the lead throughout the period. German finished the first with 14 points, shooting 5-8 from the field and 4-5 from beyond the arc.

The Bobcats remained within striking distance for the majority of the first until NIU went on a 13-2 run near the end of the first half.

Senior forward Noah McCarty had the highlight of the first half, rebounding a German miss and scoring with a two-handed slam dunk, sending NIU to the locker room up 44-26.

The teams traded 7-0 runs to start the second half before NIU went on a run to extend their lead to the highest it was all night, 22, thanks to a basket from Bradley with 12:20 remaining.

Ohio tried to mount a comeback by applying a full court press in the final five minutes and was able to shrink the lead to 12 at one point. It was too little too late however, as the Huskies held on for the 80-61 win.

The win advances the Huskies to the quarterfinals in Cleveland, where they will play the second-seeded Toledo Rockets 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

Bradley said the momentum they ride into the Quicken Loans Arena could help carry the Huskies to their first MAC championship since 1982.

“We feel like we can beat any team,” Bradley said. “Anybody can win or lose in this conference. It’s really just who wants it the most and I feel like my guys are hungry.”

Coach Montgomery said the key to advancing from here on out will be to bring the same focus they brought Monday to every game.

“We have to stay poised,” Montgomery said. “You have to execute [and] really lock in on the defensive end.